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A 75-year Triumph (Book Review)

By on May 21, 2013 – 11:23 am  11 Comments

Emily vanSonnenberg, MAPP '10, designed and teaches the UCLAx course, Happiness: Theory, Research, and Application in Positive Psychology. She operates a private practice helping people cultivate meaningful and fulfilling lives, and consults for organizations on how to create desired outcomes and increase well-being. Through her articles and speaking engagements, Emily translates psychological research into practical guidance and goal-directed strategies for the general public. Full Bio. Emily's articles are here.



“To understand lives takes a lifetime.” – George Vaillant, M.D., author of Triumphs of Experience: The Men of the Harvard Grant Study

George Vaillant, M.D., Harvard psychiatrist and the third lead researcher of the Harvard Grant Study, is unlike anyone else I have encountered. Like so many scientists, he possesses a superior capacity for intellectual creativity and objectivity. Vaillant also fearlessly expresses compassion. In person, he unabashedly emits warmth with his huge smile and his long-lived yet still twinkling eyes. This compassion is a surprising and welcome quality in the world of academics. In his new book, Triumphs of Experience: The Men of the Harvard Grant Study, readers will most certainly be touched by his strong empathic nature and fascinated by the findings he reveals about males of our species.

The Harvard Grant Study is the longest scientific study of male development and adjustment to life. It began in 1938 and is still active today, 75 years later. The study conducted an in-depth examination of the lives of 268 Harvard University sophomore men (classes of 1942, ‘43, and ‘44) commencing at age 19 and following participants to the end of their lives. Some are still alive. They include blue-collar workers, professors, artists, and a former U.S. president. The purpose of the Study was to “transcend medicine’s usual occupation with pathology by learning something about optimum health and potential, and the conditions that promote them.” The study has uncovered clear predictors of physical and psychological health of men.

Triumphs of Experience

 

Vaillant joined the study as head researcher 45 years ago when he was only 32 years old. As he notes throughout the book, this study is a telescope of sorts: it has gathered valuable insights that suggest the variables that predict success and optimum health of men. The variables studied were diverse and included (but are not limited to) childhood environment, genetics, maturation, work, alcohol use and abuse, coping styles, marriage, and social support. Researchers also conducted interviews with three generations of relatives. As you can imagine, 75+ years, 268 men, information from their relatives, and thorough objective psychosocial and biomedical health data have generated a vast reservoir of information about the antecedents of optimum health and success for men.

The Gift of Longitudinal Prospective Research

The Grant Study employed a longitudinal prospective design in which participants continue to be followed in real time, information is collected on numerous variables of interest as their lives progress, and outcomes are identified as they occur. This is unlike retrospective designs in which the outcomes are known before the variables are identified, which can lead to errors in distinguishing between causes and correlations. In prospective longitudinal research, the outcomes and what led to them are documented throughout the person’s life. Researchers can look at behavior in-the-moment, which makes it easier to see what predicts future behaviors. The dynamic resource of information gives context to the outcomes.

A Glimpse Into the Findings

The entire list of interesting discoveries documented in this book is much too long to encompass in a short review, but I’ll share a few captivating teasers.

The men supplied thorough information about their biomedical and psychosocial health. A few of the biomedical variables were EEG, scrotum length, and blood pressure. Some aspects of psychosocial health were childhood experiences, first marriages, divorces, second marriages, lost loves, first jobs, active duty in WWII, volunteer work, friends, children, grandchildren, psychological difficulties, being institutionalized for major disorders, and alcoholism, as well as participants’ greatest regrets and joys.

In line with the study’s purpose, the book describes Vaillant’s Decathlon of Flourishing. The Decathlon is a set of 10 accomplishments in late life that covered many different facets of success. Examples include good subjective and objective physical and mental health at age 80, being in a good marriage between ages 60 and 85, and being close to kids between ages 60 and 75. He wanted to see how and if these accomplishments correlated with three predictor variables:

  1. Physical constitution
  2. Social advantage
  3. A loving childhood

These three variables often showed to have very significant associations with late-life success, as researchers processed the goldmine of valuable information.

Many of the major takeaway findings you’ll learn from this book about healthy and unhealthy male adaptation to life will likely astound you. Listed below are 10 findings to whet your appetite for more,

  • The most important contributor to joy and success in adult life is love, and the second greatest contributor is the individual’s involuntary coping styles.
     
  • What goes right in childhood predicts the future far better than what goes wrong. A warm childhood predicts joy and success in adult life.
     
  • The capacity for intimate relationships predicts flourishing in all aspects of men’s lives.
     
  • Marriages become happier after age 70.
     
  • Alcoholism was the most important factor in divorces.
     
  • As men approach old age, their boyhood relationships with their mothers were associated with their effectiveness at work, continuing to work until age 70, and late-life income. Men’s warm relationships with their fathers (but not with mothers) seem to enhance their capacity to play. Good father-son relationships predicted subjective life satisfaction at age 75.
     
  • After age 40, IQ does not count for much.
     
  • Men’s military rank once discharged from WWII was significantly correlated with a cohesive home atmosphere in childhood and warm relationships with mother and siblings. Body build, parental social class, endurance on a treadmill, and IQ were not associated with attained military rank in any way.
     
  • Of the 26 personality traits assessed when the men were in college, the one called Practical, Organized best predicted objective mental health at ages 30 through 50.
     
  • Men who live to be 100 years old are usually pretty active at age 95.
     

Who this book is for?

“The findings[….]give those of us who are curious about our own lives, and the lives of those we cherish, plenty to think about.” – George Vaillant, M.D.

The 400+ pages inside this book are filled with surprising findings and powerful stories about the men of the Grant Study. While reading these stories, I was often and happily moved to tears. Anybody who is interested in human behavior will find this book fascinating. Vaillant inserts his own heart into his conclusions.

Curious, introspective males who care about their own well-being will likely find this book intriguing and helpful for understanding how to create a deeply satisfying life.

I can’t think of a more reliable guide for parents who want the best for their little boys. Triumphs of Experience suggests ways to construct the kind of environment that is most likely to set a son up for success in work, love, and life as a grown man.

Budding psychologists, counselors, marriage and family therapists, and individuals who are captivated by psychoanalysis and the human condition will discover that with each finding they learn, the next one is just as provocative.

Woman will gain a more holistic understanding of the men they care about, whether they be husband, father, son, brother, grandfather, or friend, along with ways to support their optimal growth and satisfaction.

In a Nutshell

Vaillant writes this deeply scientific book with humility and compassion. The discoveries from the Grant Study are a major contribution to scientific understanding of the male lifespan. He always describes the participants with dignity and respect.

My heart was touched by the curiosity, wisdom, and humanity with which he writes about the lives of men who were once young boys, some of whom have endured a great deal of pain and loneliness. Vaillant notes that, contrary to popular belief, people really can change over the course of their lives. Additionally, he urges that being black-and-white about science is no way to truly understand and learn from human behavior.

As I see it, Triumphs of Experience is a secular bible of sorts: if you are a man or love one and if you have faith in science, you can confidently use this book to understand and promote optimal male functioning.

“…Our lives when we are old are the sum of all of our loves. It is important, therefore, that we not let any of these go to waste.” – George Vaillant, M.D.

 


 
Reference

Vaillant, G. (2012). Triumphs of Experience: The Men of the Harvard Grant Study. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press.

Photo Credit via Compfight with Creative Commons licenses:
Older couple courtesy of Digital Internet
Physically active courtesy of Sangudo
loving childhood courtesy of morgan childers

11 Comments »

  • oz says:

    Hi Emily,

    What does practical organised mean?

  • Emily says:

    Hi Oz,

    Great question!

    In the study, the men’s personalities in college were rated on 26 personality traits. One of these traits was referred to as “Practical, Organized”. The trait of “Practical, Organized” means “the ability to delay gratification”, and is consistent with “hardheaded common sense” (132, 338). It is a trait that was found to be uncharacteristic of adolescents, and strongly associated with healthy midlife adjustment (but not after age 75).

    I hope this helps to clarify that finding. Thank you for the question ~

    ~ Emily

  • oz says:

    Emily – this sounds like the big 5 dimension of conscientiousness or perhaps self regulation.

    Thoughts???

  • The SPH study calculates that men can gain a year and a half of extra life between ages 45 and 84 by being physically active. Quitting smoking buys almost 2 extra years. Keeping blood pressure normal adds a year. Becoming active and quitting smoking adds 3 to 4 years.

  • Emily says:

    Hi Oz,

    An insightful connection you make here. Based on what I could gather from the text, the researchers extrapolated five traits that correlated with the Big Five. It appears that the trait of Practical, Organized may ahve, in part, derived from the Big Five. However, and more directly, the Big Five traits of Neuroticism and Extraversion were measured; a high score on the trait of Extraversion (thriving on challenging environments, social interactions, and keeping busy)and low score on the trait of Neuroticism(anxiety, hostility, depression, and self-consciousness) predicts a high Decathlon score (this association is as strong as the prediction between people’s height and weight).

    I hope this is helpful ~ great questions, Oz ~

    ~ Emily

  • Maxine Carey says:

    At a time when many people around the world are living into their tenth decade, the longest longitudinal study of human development ever undertaken offers some welcome news for the new old age: our lives continue to evolve in our later years, and often become more fulfilling than before.

  • This book is a Must-Read for Senior Citizens, by George E. Vailant, M.D. Through extensive research that was conducted on a long-term basis, the author presents reports on all aspects of male life as he offers welcome news for men who are retired. Dr. Vailant reports that our lives become more fulfilling than before as he presents comprehensive and concise information that’s based on a study of 200 men, and explains what it’s like to bloom beyond retirement,while he includes reports on the entire life span. In addition, the author shares his findings on all aspects of male life, offers reports on major findings, and concludes what makes a successful and healthy life. Interesting facts are presented on DNA studies, alcoholism,and how human growth continues long after maturation. The author is a Great storyteller as he explains the Grant Study of men through age 91, which is the most important study of the life span ever done. Babyboomers will enjoy this intriguing story of human development,as they read about the findings in a study of individuals for the Harvard Study of Adult Development. This incredible book is insightful, with a blend of humor as it draws the reader’s attention immediately. ‘TRIUMPHS OF EXPERIENCE’ is also Enjoyable, Educational, and filled with Wisdom. Highly Recommended!

  • WarriorKing says:

    Isn’t this really just a study of privileged white males of a certain era? Harvard was hardly an egalitarian place in 1938.
    Seems to me, a major part of this is very disheartening news for many. It seems that Valliant has concluded that being a lucky guy with a loving mother and father is quite important throughout life.
    What does that say for orphans who were abandoned–like me?
    The suggestion is that, after having fate hand you a deprived childhood, you are also doomed to a less healthy, more troubled and shorter adulthood. Why is that good news?
    In short, this is just good news for the privileged few whose loving and affluent white parents got them into Harvard at a time when real people in the remaining 99% could not. Is this just privileged old white men gloating?
    Gee, how great were our lives…we chose the right parents?
    That said, I guess the book tells the privileged few how to live an even better life, so that they can gloat in their old age from their opulent homes…

  • Emily vanSonnenberg says:

    Hi Warrior King,

    You bring up some points that perhaps others have also considered. I want to touch on and clarify a few points you raised.
    Firstly, yes–based on the research, it does seem that men are more successful and happier if they felt loved when a young child. That being said, it was made clear through the research that this love could have come from other guardians, as well as relationships that were formative and influential in a young boy’s life. Additionally, this finding does not preclude the fact that there were some men who did not come from money and many (truly, many) men in this study who did not come from loving childhoods or whose parents died at young ages though they still became successful and experienced deep satisfaction later in life. Likewise, many of the men’s lives turned out to be unsuccessful–and lacking in satisfaction. Much of these men’s successes and satisfaction came as a result of the coping mechanisms they chose to apply toward life’s difficulties.

    Secondly, while it is true that many Harvard men were lucky, there were also many who were unlucky. In this book, Vaillant often cites another large-scale, highly respected study on male development that was conducted on Inner City males during the same period; the findings for those males of the Inner City cohort are largely the same as those of the Harvard Grant study.

    Finally, Vaillant in no way makes claims that a person must have X to achieve Y. What is made clear regarding many of the outcomes is that having X can make Y more likely.

    I think you will find this book’s specific findings and the reasoning behind them quite fascinating, and it may help to further clarify the points you raised. Life success and satisfaction in men is, in no way, solely the result of luck or being privileged. And this book does a spectacular job of discussing the factors that account for un/success and dis/satisfaction, and what variables a male can control in their lives to increase their satisfaction with life.

    I hope this is helpful. Thank you for your post!
    ~ Emily

  • The SPH study calculates that men can gain a year and a half of extra life between ages 45 and 84 by being physically active. Quitting smoking buys almost 2 extra years. Keeping blood pressure normal adds a year. Becoming active and quitting smoking adds 3 to 4 years.

  • It turns out that I was not as interested in the topic of a longevity study as I thought I might be. Well researched and I think well written, I found fewer insights into being human than I thought I might. I thought the chapter on alcoholism and his references to the effects of alcoholism on the lives of the men in the study were the most interesting and worth reading.

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