The latest chapter in the Harvard Grant Study

Triumphs of Experience: The Men of the Harvard Grant Study
by George E. Vaillant (2012)

Harvard’s Grant Study, or to give it its proper name “the Grant Study of Adult Development”, is the longest running longitudinal social scientific study of human development there has been so far.  Between 1939 and 1942, Harvard University recruited 268 of its undergraduates to participate in a (then) revolutionary new study of the human life cycle.  The purpose was to chart the ways in which a group of promising individuals coped with their lives over the course of many years. 

George E. Vaillant, director of the study from 1966, published results in “Adaptation to Life” looking at the lives of the men to age 55.  This was a tremendous insight into the different approaches and methods people took into dealing with the challenges of life.  But now we get a chance to stare again into the lives of the study group as the men move into their nineties in the new book “Triumphs of Experience”.

Vaillant describes how his travels to visit the subjects took him around the world – from England to New Zealand.  The identities of the participants have always been kept confidential (with the exception of John F. Kennedy, who is of course no longer a part of the study).  Although the style of the author may not fit with some of the latest views from the field of positive psychology this is nonetheless a fascinating insight to the achievement of wellbeing into later life.  And the advancing age of the author (Vaillant himself was born in 1934) adds to the understanding he has of the priorities faced by the group members.

Through the lives of the study group members we see how people who divorce once (or more) can still go on to enjoy a happy marriage; how people who do well in old age did not necessarily do so earlier in their lives; how success or otherwise at any stage of life does not pre-determine success at a subsequent stage.  “Lives change and things can get better,” writes Vaillant.

- Memories of a happy childhood are a lifelong source of strength

- How well we age after the age of 80 has more to do with habits former before we are 50 than our genetic makeup

This book is a unique insight into the lives of people maturing into old age, as illustrated by one quote from a study member:

“With age you acquire more understanding.  The things you felt so passionate about when you are young, you learn to let go of.  You realize that all those things you thought you were going to be, you ain’t.  As I have often said, at this stage in life it’s not what you’ve accomplished in a day, but how the day felt.”

Into one’s nineties, lives continue to evolve and improve, in ways that we do not anticipate at earlier stages of life.  Maybe we can find our own contentment sooner by learning from some of the lessons discovered and described by the surviving men of the Grant Study.

 





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