Answering some of the big questions

Science can’t (yet) answer the biggest questions, like “Is there a God?” or “What is the meaning of life?” but there are some big questions that it can answer better now, thanks to a study that has been going for more than 75 years. In 1938, before WWII, about 200 Harvard students were recruited for a study. The original aim was to track these healthy and privileged men for the next 20 years, in the hope of understanding the basis of a happy and successful life. Later on, a further cohort of men, who came from the inner areas of Boston, were added to the original group. Despite funding issues and threats of closure, the Grant Study is still continuing today, when the surviving participants are in their 90’s.

Of course, the limitations of the study immediately spring to mind. Why weren’t women included? Why did the original researchers pick privileged men instead of average men? And, if the researchers were interested in development, why weren’t the participants tracked from babyhood onwards? According to one of the directors of the study, George Vaillant, it is the gender and the privilege of the Grant Study men that has made it so useful as an investigation into human development. Well-off men don’t tend to die early of disease or lack of medical care, as happens far too often to poor ones. Also, glass ceilings and racial prejudice were less likely to hold them back from achieving to their full potential. Plus, they were articulate, a bonus when you are using interviews to collect data. As for the question about the years the study did not track, the participants’ childhood years, the original researchers were unaware then of what we know now: that a person’s childhood has an enormous impact on his future development and life happiness. Fortunately, enough data was collected from the participants and their families early on for later researchers to gain an understanding of their childhood conditions. This meant that they could feasibly tackle some of the big questions about human development, such as nature vs nurture (the answer is it’s complicated), or the effects of parenting on children’s later life.

Over time, the study produced a wealth of information about each participant, in a depth that is unprecedented in research history. Some of the findings were not unexpected. For example, good self-care before the age of 50 – stopping smoking, watching alcohol intake, maintaining a healthy weight and controlling blood pressure – made all the difference in how healthy the men were, mentally and physically, at age 80 and 90. But some unexpected findings were made. For example, it turned out that, according to the study, people who are made physically sick by stress are not less healthy in later life than those who don’t suffer from stress-related illnesses. People often recover from these illnesses after a few decades, although they may have to go through a lot of distress in the meantime. Another unexpected finding is that excessive alcohol intake is the cause, not the result, of problems such as unhappy marriages or career difficulties. Future alcoholics were different from other drinkers in the study, not because they had unhappy childhoods or mental illness, but because they could tolerate alcohol more easily, and because they were exposed to environments where drunkenness was accepted.

In his book on the Grant Study, Triumphs of experience, George Vaillant summed up the main lessons he gained from his decades of work with the participants. He learned that however long their lives, people tend to continue to change and grow over time. He found that an unhappy childhood does not necessarily lead to an unhappy life: the effect of early trauma becomes less important with time. On the other hand, the good things that happen in childhood tend to endure, so that, for example, a warm family life is strongly associated with later flourishing. And finally, Vaillant learned that there are two main sources of happiness in life. One, he says, is love, and the other is finding a way of coping with life that does not push love away. As he puts it, happiness is the cart, and love is the horse. It’s not quite All you need is love, but close.

Vaillant, George E. (2012). Triumphs of experience: the men of the Harvard Grant Study. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.