George E. Vaillant, M.D. has studied adult development, including the lives of 800+ men and women for over 60 years as a Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. His past books highlight many of his results in this field. His current book, Spiritual Evolution (2008), demonstrates the necessity of positive emotions for human development and survival.His other articles are here.
Recently The Atlantic wrote an article summarizing a 70-year Harvard project, The Study of Adult Development. When I was interviewed as the director of the study for 40 years, I made two rash generalizations, “The only thing that really matters in life are your relationships to other people,” and “Happiness equals love—full stop.” Let me defend my seemingly sentimental generalizations about the findings of a multi-million dollar, seven-decade study designed to identify the key ingredients that lead to a “good” life.
When I praised relationships, was I speaking from my heart and not from science? In order to find out, I went back to the data. I reviewed the findings on 268 Harvard sophomores selected in 1938-42 and followed prospectively for seven decades until 2009. However, before I present the data that underscore the importance of relationships, I need to provide the reader with some background.
The study’s predictive criteria included: vital affect, athletic prowess, mesomorphy, masculine (as contrasted to feminine) body builds, intelligence, perseverance on a treadmill, and friendliness (a variable more correlated with extraversion than capacity for intimacy). These variables were all inter-correlated and they correlated well with the men’s global A, B, C rating—assigned at the end of college to indicate prognosis for future success.
Brief History of Relationship Study in Modern Psychology
If the importance of relationships had not occurred to any of the originators of the study, neither had the capacity for warm, intimate relationships crossed the minds of social scientists anywhere else. Many psychiatrists believed that personality was determined by body build. Many social scientists still believed that the British Empire had been built on racial superiority, not on the luck of “guns, germs and steel,” and that instincts, not relationships, ruled the unconscious. In the 1940’s my high school English teacher drilled into us Kipling’s mantra, “He travels fastest who travels alone.”
First, the not uncommon malady of Infantile Autism was not discovered until 1943; its close relative, Asperger’s syndrome, was not identified until 1944. It took fifty years more before these two disorders were included in standard diagnostic nomenclature. Until 1943 physicians lived in a world where science understood arcane phenomena like quantum mechanics, but could not conceptualize a disorder characterized by a congenital absence of empathy.
Second, love, from Aristotle to Freud, was conceptualized as Eros, not as attachment. Love was thought to be due to individual instinct, not pair bonding. Not until 1950 did psychoanalyst-ethologist John Bowlby popularize the concept of attachment, that babies “imprinted” on their mothers because the mothers cuddled them, sang to them and gazed into their eyes.
Third, in his 1958 presidential address to the America Psychological Association, ethologist Harry Harlow was driven to exclaim, “Psychologists not only show no interest in the origin and development of love and affection, but they seem to be unaware of its very existence.”
Thus, during ten hours of psychiatric interviews, the Study men had been queried about masturbation and premarital sex but not about best friends or girlfriends.
70 Years of Information Say Relationships Matter
With this introduction, let me lay out 70 years of evidence that our relationships with other people matter, and matter more than anything else in the world. I shall examine the power of the childhood and young adult variables to predict rewarding lives from age 50-80.
Ten Possible Healthy Outcomes
My criteria for a rewarding late life comprise a decathlon of what we call “events”:
- Two events reflecting economic success were high earned income and high occupational prestige.
- Four events reflecting biological success were being still alive by age 80 and if so, whether in good health—both physically and mentally, as well as both subjectively and objectively.
- Three events reflecting good relationships were a happy marriage (ages 40-70), close father-child relationships, and social support at age 70.
- The final “event” was early smoking cessation. Sustained smoking, that great destroyer of health, was a marker for alcoholism and major depression—those two great destroyers of relationships.
Although these 10 variables appear disparate, they were in fact highly correlated with each other. So when I use the events related to economic success to make my points below, they are indicative of other outcomes indicating rewarding lives.
Eight (Plus Five) Possible Predictors
Six other items were theorized by the study to predict good officers and store managers: vital affect, friendliness, treadmill endurance, masculine body build, mesomorphy, and athletic excellence. In only 8 out of a possible 80 matches (8 predictors times 10 outcomes) did any of these variables significantly predict “rewarding” adjustment to life—none of them strongly (with p < .001).
Five additional common risk variables to successful aging included early ancestral death, alcoholic relatives, depressed relatives, fewer years of education, and developmental problems in childhood. These were significant in only 10 out a possible 50 matches.Testing “Love” as a Predictor
However, if I, safely ensconced in 21st century science, tested the hypothesis that relationships are the most important prologue to a good life, prediction became far more successful. Since warm relationships are hard enough to measure in the 21st century let alone in 1940, I used four indirect measures.
The first predictor was assessment of a cohesive home-life combined with warm relationships with mother, father, and siblings. This indicator was based on in-depth interviews of both the men and their parents during college and assessed by two independent raters blind to events after 1940. This indicator did not seem important until 1972.
The second predictor was the study staff’s A, B, and C consensus rating of the men’s overall soundness at age 21.
A = Would have no “serious problem in handling problems that might confront them.”
B = “If a boy was lacking in warmth in his touch with people” or too “sensitive.”
C = Men who showed “marked mood variations” or were “markedly asocial.”
The third predictor was the “maturity” or “immaturity” of the men’s involuntary coping style from 20 to 35.
- Mature coping mechanisms were “suppression” (patience and stoicism), “altruism” (doing for others what you wished had been done for yourself), and “anticipation” (allowing painful emotions to come consciously to mind before the event).
- Immature coping mechanisms were “fantasy” (imaginary friends), projection (externalizing blame), “hypochondriasis” (help-rejecting complaining) and “acting out” (tantrums). While often soothing the subject, these immature behaviors do not win friends.
The final predictor “Object Relations (age 30-47)” subtracted points for not being married for more than ten years, not having children, being distant from own children, having few friends, no contact with family of origin, no clubs, and no games with others. Although not assessed until age 47, this variable was used because it dramatically predicted future occupational success.
Love Predicts Income and Occupational Success
The four measures of warm relationships all strongly correlated with each other. More importantly, these four variables were highly predictive of both income and occupational prestige. Out of the 8 (4 predictors times 2 outcomes of income and occupational success) possible matches, all were significant.
The 41 men with the warmest childhoods earned an average of $81,000 a year. The 84 men with poor childhood relationships reported a maximum earned income of $50,000 a year.
The 12 men with the most mature (empathic) coping style reported an annual income of $123,000 a year; the 16 men with the most immature (narcissistic) coping style reported an income of $53,000 a year.
By way of comparison, the contrast in maximum earned income between men whose parents had been in the upper-upper and in the lower-middle social class was only $4,000—an insignificant difference.
These four relationship-reflecting variables also predicted successful health outcomes. Twenty-five out of 32 (4 variables times 8 health outcomes) were significant, and 12 strongly significant.
Adolescent social class, intelligence, treadmill endurance, and constitution meant little to successful aging in 1940 Harvard graduates. In contrast, capacity for empathic relationships predicted a great deal.
Editor’s note: This article appeared in the Love and Be Loved chapter of the Positive Psychology News book, Character Strengths Matter.
Vaillant, G. (2008). Spiritual Evolution: A Scientific Defense of Faith. New York: Broadway Press.
Vaillant, G. (2012). Triumphs of Experience: The Men of the Harvard Grant Study. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press.
Superman courtesy of Bohman
Mommy and Deegan courtesy of Gramody
131 (silver spoon) courtesy of partycia
dad, mom, and me – 1969 courtesy of freeparking
Empathy – 2 men sitting together courtesy of Haeroldus Laudeus