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
In my eyes, this is a Gettysburg Address – a succinct and exceptionally powerful call from a major authority – for the renovation of our education system to focus much more than it currently does on the education of our children in Emotional Intelligence (and positive psychology).
We must ask ourselves: do we care so much if our children can pass a state qualifying math test or do we care that they have happier and more successful lives well into old age?
We must make room for a new perspective about what it takes to create the lives we want, and it’s no longer just the Three R’s.
Wonderful article, George!
George – your article concludes by connecting relationships to income. This implies that happiness is about having a high income. Is this what you mean?
I certainly hope that your interpretation is unique. Love is imortant and predicts many things. Money and cognitive happiness are relatively unimportant and predict much less.
I had somewhat the same problem as Wayne when I first read your article. In the last section, you aren’t talking about income and status as predictors, you’re talking about them as outcomes. I suspect you used them because they are easier to explain (and perhaps easier to extract from the data) than other outcomes indicating rewarding late lives.
That’s why I suggested you add the sentence, “So when I use the events related to economic success to make my points below, they are indicative of other outcomes indicating rewarding lives.”
But perhaps it was too subtle?
George – do you have data linking relationships to other outcomes such as physical health, subjective well being etc?
Out of interest can you expand on the object relations category – which of the various sub categories was most predictive of outcomes such as SWB. For example is a longer marriage more predictive, does being divorced have an impact?
I believe that the out comes were pretty well spelled out.
“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.”
In short,relationships and subjective wellbeing were clearly, if compactly, included.
I loved this article. Now all “we” need is powerful interventions to bolster “maturity” and “empathy.”
I think it’s terrific that love, career success and healthy aging are all correlated… better lovers make better professionals…
Chris Peterson reminded us to say, “So what?” when reading research findings. You found that “our relationships with other people matter, and matter more than anything else in the world.” So what? Other people matter!!
For people who are not experiencing positive relationships, I feel sad. No amount of reading research findings will convince them of the power of love until they have their eyes–and hearts–opened. They are working from their negative confirmation bias.
Vulnerability rocks. You might lose, but you can’t win if you don’t play!
Thanks for putting this together 🙂
George – I think LRMM is on the money. The big question is can you teach people to have better relationships – or does it boil down to personality. What is your perspective?
Thanks for putting together this timely article. I have always been a strong proponent of Happiness being equated to love. Liked the bit on the men perspective, and not just women.
A brief thanks, Dr. Vaillant! I read the Atlantic piece as soon as it appeared but found your presentation here much more interesting and enjoyable.
Very inspiring article/research.
George, I am currently working toward a Masters in Positive Psychology. When I read your article in the Atlantic it inspired me to do a research project for one my classes, focusing on a definition of love from cross-cultural perspective.
I’ve lived in many cultures and I’ve noticed how love and attachment are valued differently – mostly, I believe, depending on how strong the dimension of “individualism” is in that particular culture.
My experience in the US has demonstrated to me that in many respects Americans are less likely to be aware of how their actions toward others impact their well-being longer term. I believe many decisions are made based on the premise that something is good for “me” at this moment, and “I deserve better”.
The cultures I’ve experienced where divorce rates are low and friendships are deep, people seem to make decisions based on wider implications/criteria. It seems to me they also have a more inherent/palpable sense of the value love and attachment bring to their lives and therefore they treat it with greater “respect” (poor choice of word but can’t think of a better one at this time)
My feeling is that there could be some interesting learnings gathered by understanding how in less individualistic cultures love/attachment is honored, and valued. In other words, how do beliefs and behaviors differ and what can we learn from these behaviors so as to make decisions with greater awareness of their actual impact to our well-being.
If you have an reactions or even suggestions I would be very grateful for your thoughts.
I was quite interested in your article. Thank you for the insights. I had a question though, were romantic relationships a predictor of life satisfaction as well? Only family relations were included. Thanks.
Awesome article George,
Will the fact that the research was done on just Harvard students have any misleading evidence becasue of these students education. Would there need to be research done on participants with little to no education to give a more accurate testing?
Just wondering 🙂
I really enjoyed reading your article. Before reading the article I assumed that you would be touching more on the relationships of husbands and wives and how it affects our overall happiness. I was just curious about any differences that you may have found in levels of happiness between individuals who are married and those who are single.
I think it’s really great that the results showed that relationships and love
are what truly matter not only to happiness but to success in various areas of a person’s life. However, I do have a question about the longevity of the subject’s lives. Did the relationships of the subjects correlate with how long they lived? Are the ones that are still living, having good relationships?
In reality money does not make people happy. Most people that come for therapy are people that have high middle class to a rich social-economic-status. The more money people earn least likely they are to be satisfied with their life, the least likely they are to have real communication with their partner or close friends, and the more likely they are to kill themselves.
Cheer-Cheer to the comments provided by Doris Walczyk because 70% of the human population comes from colectivistic cultures. People from colectivistic cultures are more friendly, sociable, they care for other people, they help others without expecting nothing in return, and the music is more expresive and positive.
Sadly, pop music of different styles (Rock, hip-hop, etc.) from Individualistic Cultures from the late 1970s to the present is really depressive. And governments from individualistic cultures like to help or “help” other countries in exchange for land, resources, slavery, and exploytation every 10 years…
Money makes happy people a bit happier. If I ask you if you want more or less money in your wallet at the end of the day, what would you say? It may be that your favorite activities are free and require no equipment, no travel to get there to complete them. Let’s say your favorite things to do are meditation and birdwatching and window shopping in a collective environment with cheerful happy friends. I would say that is great. I’d also think that at some point, there will be material goods (a sweater on a chill fall morning, a parka in the winter, maybe some sunblock in the summer) that would ease your burdens. A certain amount of money will make you happier because it will free you from material want. It is easier to be happy with creature comfort and good health. Even a short nap can make happiness easier.
Happy is such a slippery, obnoxious word. It means literally anything you want it to mean. If by happier you mean more fulfilling and rewarding, I’d say the money in itself will not lead to great happiness by itself. It can enhance the hell out of an otherwise happy life that is mired in poverty.
The pursuit of money as a means to another important end such as security and philanthropy probably will lead to a happier life.
Most people that come for therapy are people that have high middle class to a rich social-economic-status.
It doesn’t hurt that those are the people who can AFFORD therapy, no?
I agree that money doesn’t necessarily buy happiness once a person has reached a certain level of success, but being in or near poverty certainly adds an additional psychological stressor/burden not experienced by the middle/upper classes.
Dear George, thank you for this terrific article and summary of your findings! I will be sharing it widely.