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What Is a Good Life?

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Edward Gorey Charitable Trust/Pomegranate
Drawing by Edward Gorey from The Osbick Bird, published in a new edition by Pomegranate

The Terman Study was very different. In 1920, Lewis Terman, a Stanford psychologist, started a study of roughly 1,500 elementary school children. They consisted of all the children in Oakland, San Francisco, and Los Angeles who had IQs over 140, and they have been followed by questionnaires every five years since then. This is even older than the Grant Study, although not as intensive. Of the Terman children, 672 were girls, and they had an average IQ of 151. In 1987, Vaillant reviewed the records of these women, and interviewed a sample of forty of them, then in their late seventies. This allowed him “to study some of the sociological effects of gender,” and they were considerable.

The good news is that like the Grant men, the Terman women were healthier, both mentally and physically, than their less gifted classmates, and lived longer than average American white women of the same birth cohort. Almost half of them had full-time jobs for most of their lives and most went to college, at a time when that was unusual for women, and many went to graduate school. Nevertheless, their average maximum income was $30,000 (in 1989 dollars), the same as the inner-city men, whose average IQ was 56 points lower and most of whom had not finished high school.

An interesting (and sad) sidelight of the Terman Study is the fact that both of Terman’s brilliant children, a boy and a girl, were included in the study. Both graduated from Stanford and worked for the university—the son as provost, the daughter as a secretary in one of the dormitories. “Thus, of our three samples,” writes Vaillant, “it was the college-educated middle-class Terman women, most of whose relatives had been in the United States for generations, who most clearly illustrated the negative effect of social bigotry upon development.”

All three of these longitudinal studies of adult development dealt with groups who in some way had advantages. Even the control group of the Glueck Study was restricted to inner-city boys who were not delinquent. We have no idea what a longitudinal study of a representative cross-section of Americans would show. Nevertheless, despite the Grant Study’s weaknesses—that the data were not collected systematically to test hypotheses, that it was limited to highly privileged men (originally conceived as a strength of the study), and that its usefulness to today’s world is doubtful—it still offers an irresistibly rich lode for speculation.

The question I find most intriguing is why the men in the Grant Study, despite all commonsense expectations, seemed to grow more, not less, content in old age. After all, by the time they were over seventy, they were no doubt experiencing many of the physical limitations of age, and they had to know that their time was running out, that any day they could become seriously ill and begin an inexorable decline to decrepitude and death. Why were they happier than they seemingly had any right to be? (Although early death may have claimed less happy men, that is not enough to explain it.)

Maybe one answer is that they had learned to live in the present, not the future. And in the present, most of them had acquired enough resources to live comfortably, yet didn’t have to work anymore, or work as hard, if they didn’t want to. So the tension of competing at work was relaxed, their children were probably married and self-supporting, and they had a new freedom. These were ambitious men who probably cared a great deal about professional advancement. (A quarter of each class became lawyers or doctors, 15 percent became teachers, mostly at the college level, 20 percent became businessmen, and the remaining 40 percent entered other fields. Four of them ran for the US Senate, one served in a presidential Cabinet, one was a governor, and one was President John F. Kennedy.)

After they retired, perhaps it was a relief not to be thinking ahead to the next professional goal, and also not to experience gaps between career aspirations and achievements. Like Candide, they could find serenity in cultivating their garden—or taking up watercolors or carpentry or otherwise broadening their interests at leisure. And of course, living in the present helps people not to think about the looming existential threats of illness and death.

The fact that marriages were happier after age seventy no doubt added to the contentment. But why were they happier? Was it simply a matter of having found the right partner (about a third of the happiest marriages were not the first), or perhaps having rubbed up against each other so long that the barnacles had worn away? There may be another reason, one that would have been particularly relevant for marriages that had taken place when men and women had sharply divided roles and men were dominant. As they age, women tend to become psychologically more independent, for a variety of reasons, while men become more dependent, particularly when they retire and spend more time at home (the traditional woman’s domain). As the men of the Grant Study and their wives became more equal, and probably shared more interests by virtue of being together more, they probably became more companionable. Vaillant refers to “hormonal changes that ‘feminize’ husbands and ‘masculinize’ wives,” but I don’t think it’s necessary to invoke them to explain the growing closeness. He also believes the “empty nest is often more of a blessing than a burden,” and I think he’s right in that.

A more speculative possibility: it seems to me that old age takes many men almost by surprise; it sneaks up on them, and is all the more disturbing for that. In contrast, women are all too aware of aging, starting with their first gray hair or wrinkle. By the time they’re in their fifties, they’re well accustomed to the losses that come with age. That may make them better able to help and support their husbands as the men find that having been a master of the universe is no protection against old age.

But this happy outcome—more contentment and better marriages—depends crucially on having the means to live in comfort. Without that, it is hard to imagine such equanimity in the face of old age. If you don’t know whether you can afford to heat your home next winter, or pay your medical bills, or hire help if you become disabled, old age is a particularly harsh time of life. Financial security is no doubt something that distinguished the Grant men from less privileged men, including those in the Glueck Study. As the founders of the Grant Study intended, these were the most fortunate of men, and it is wrong to assume that others will age in the same gentle way. A good old age also depends on remaining reasonably healthy, and they did well in this respect, too, although about a quarter of them who reached their nineties had dementia.

Like Vaillant, I am in my seventies, so a book about aging holds special interest for me. Ultimately, old age is bad news, of course, and I would rather be young. But like many of the Grant Study men, I find offsetting advantages, one of which is a sharper sense of what is important in life. Perhaps it is analogous to Samuel Johnson’s observation that “when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” Anyway, I believe I have a clearer sense of what matters and what doesn’t.

My sources of pleasure are different, too, and more varied. For example, I take great pleasure in beautiful vistas, something I did not when I was young. Ordinary daily activities, like reading the paper and discussing the news with my husband over breakfast, have taken on an added pleasure beyond the activities themselves, just because of the ritual. Although I continue to be active professionally, I am less concerned with maintaining a professional presence, and I look forward to learning Italian, taking a course in astronomy, and finally reading War and Peace (I have no interest in cultivating an actual garden).

But even though my microcosm is in pretty good shape, I have become much more pessimistic about the macrocosm—the state of the world. We face unsustainable population growth, potentially disastrous climate change, depletion of natural resources, pollution of the oceans, increasing inequality, both within and across countries, and violent tribalism of all forms, national and religious. Dealing with these problems will take a lot more than marginal reforms, and I don’t see that coming. Particularly in the United States, but also in the rest of the world, big money calls the shots, and it is most concerned with the next quarter’s profits. Although I’ve spent much of my life writing and speaking in opposition to the corrupting influence of money on medicine, I find doing so increasingly pointless because it seems futile. Worrying about the world my daughters and grandsons will inhabit is what I like least about aging.

Nearly everyone over a certain age observes that time seems to pass much more quickly, and I am no exception. So extreme is the acceleration that I wonder whether it isn’t a result of some physical law, not just a perception. Maybe it’s akin to Einstein’s discovery that as speed increases, time slows. Perhaps this is the reverse—as our bodies slow, time speeds up. In any case, the rush of my days is in stark contrast to the magically endless days of my girlhood. I also find it hard to remember that I’m no longer young, despite the physical signs, since I’m the same person and in many ways have the same feelings. It’s particularly disquieting to recall that many people and places I knew no longer exist, except in my memories. Still, although I dislike the fact that my days are going so quickly, that’s the way it is, and I’ve had a good run. Like the men in the Grant Study.

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