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What Is a Good Life?

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Spencer Museum of Art/University of Kansas, Lawrence/Estate of Fairfield Porter
Fairfield Porter: July, 1971

In 1938, Dr. Arlen V. Bock, professor of hygiene and chief of Harvard’s student health services, launched a study of 268 Harvard sophomores (all male, of course), selected as the best and the brightest in the classes of 1939 through 1944. The study was meant to last for fifteen to twenty years, and answer the question of what defines the best health possible, something it was assumed this highly privileged group would exemplify. Financial support came from William T. Grant, owner of a chain of “dime” stores, who had a narrower aim—to find out what makes a good store manager.

Despite the original intention to end the study after two decades, and despite financial trouble after Grant pulled out in 1947, it continues to this day (still known as the Harvard Grant Study, although officially renamed the Harvard Study of Adult Development). The study’s aim has grown broader: to determine which early traits best predict a successful life. Most of the surviving men are in their nineties. It is thus one of the longest prospective studies of adult development ever conducted, and certainly the most exhaustively documented.

Over the course of the men’s lives, a team of investigators collected a vast amount of information about them. They performed thorough physical and psychiatric examinations, IQ tests, and various medical and lab tests, and conducted interviews with parents and, later, with wives and children, as well as repeated interviews with the men themselves. At least every two years, the investigators used lengthy questionnaires to delve into everything from the men’s daydreams to whether they liked their subordinates at work. So frequent and intimate was the contact between investigators and subjects that a bond formed between them, and except through death, there were very few dropouts.

In 1954, when it looked as though the study would end for lack of funding, the Tobacco Industry Research Committee stepped in and provided most of the money for about a decade, ostensibly because it wanted to learn about the “positive reasons” people smoke. (Whether it did is unclear.) After that, funding came from several sources, including the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, which required the investigators to pay particular attention to alcoholism. The study is now supported by the National Institute on Aging, for obvious reasons.

During the seventy-five years of the study, there have been only four directors: Clark Heath, MD (1938–1954), Charles McArthur, Ph.D. (1954–1972), George Vaillant, MD (1972–2004), and Robert Waldinger, MD (2005–present). Vaillant’s term was by far the longest, and it is he who has most put his stamp on the study. Now seventy-eight years old, with a string of papers and three books about the study to his credit, he intends his newest book, Triumphs of Experience: The Men of the Harvard Grant Study, to be his final summary of the overall findings.

So what has the study found? Too much, as it turns out. As Vaillant himself acknowledges, there was no hypothesis being tested, so a mountain of information was amassed to no specific end. The study “had been very ambitious in collecting data,” he writes, “but not always very thoughtful about what it would do with the results.” And he refers to “desperate efforts to discover publishable material.” Moreover, computers to organize and analyze the piles of written records were not available until 1969, so until then, the sheer volume would probably resist organization, even if there had been a clear hypothesis. But he compares the study with the Lewis and Clark Expedition and Darwin’s passage on the Beagle, in that “the Grant Study was not a clearly focused experiment but a voyage of discovery (or, as some have less charitably suggested, a fishing trip).”

With no definition of what constitutes a good life and so many possible predictors, it has been difficult to draw unambiguous conclusions, except for a few major ones, which I’ll get to later. Given the mass of data, you could more or less pull out what you were looking for, and that was partly a matter of which theories were in vogue at any given time. During the early years, it was thought that success was largely determined by physical constitution, so one of the criteria used to select men for the study in the first place was a mesomorphic (muscular) body build, which was thought to be characteristic of men destined for success. By the time Vaillant, a psychiatrist, took over the directorship, the emphasis had shifted to the quality of personal relationships, particularly in childhood. Now, with a new director and new technology, there is renewed attention to physical findings—not muscles, but brains, as revealed by imaging studies.

In 2009, in an effort to impose some order, Vaillant attempted to define what constitutes a good life in men aged sixty to eighty years by devising what he called a “decathlon of flourishing.” It consists of ten variables, including being listed in Who’s Who in America, earning income in the study’s top quartile, and being in a good marriage. Using these variables, each man could be given a score ranging from 0 to 10. Vaillant then looked back at the data collected in earlier years to see what factors best correlated with a high score in late life.

It is a brave attempt, but plagued with problems. Many possible correlations were found not to be significant, but because of the small number of men, a real effect might not have met the usual threshold for statistical significance. Vaillant concludes that since the quality of personal relationships (for example, a “warm childhood”) was the strongest predictor of a high score, the “most important influence by far on a flourishing life is love.” That may be true, but it seems to me somewhat circular, since the “decathlon” includes several measures of success in personal relationships (and few measures of, say, feelings of usefulness to society at large, or enjoyment of solitude).

There is nothing ambiguous or circular about some of the findings, however. The men in the Grant Study were extraordinarily long-lived. Fully 30 percent of them survived into their nineties, compared with only 3 to 5 percent of men in the general population of that generation. We have long known that being affluent and well-educated is the best possible ensurer of good health, but the size of the effect in the Grant Study is startling. So strong is the correlation with education that the Grant Study men who went to graduate school lived even longer than those who didn’t.

One of Vaillant’s major themes is that adult development continues long after adolescence. In the Grant Study, the factors associated with flourishing changed with age, and those that were important in youth or middle age were not necessarily important in old age. In fact, many were so inconsistent that I have doubts about how much importance we can attach to them (a consequence of what is known as “data-dredging”). In general, however, these men seemed more content with their lives as they aged (Vaillant does not provide explicit data on this, but he refers to other studies that do), and they reported happier marriages—whether it was a long first marriage or a recent second. Where they landed at about age seventy seemed to matter most. (Vaillant, who candidly admits that his own development over the years greatly influenced his interpretation of the study’s findings, reports, “As I write this book I am recently remarried once again.”)

Another of Vaillant’s themes is the devastating effects of alcoholism. According to him, alcoholism was the cause, not the consequence, of unhappiness in these men. Most of the sixty-two divorces were associated with alcoholism, either in the men or their wives, as were professional setbacks and early death. Vaillant is absolutely certain that alcoholism is, in his words, the horse, not the cart. The men did not drown their sorrows in alcohol, he believes, but inherited a vulnerability to alcohol, which then caused their sorrows. (In my view, he is too accepting of the genetic explanation.) “In all the world literature,” he says, “there is no other study of lifetime alcohol abuse as long and as thorough as this one,” and he believes that this aspect of the study is “perhaps its greatest contribution.”

The main strength of the Grant Study—namely, its long life—is also one of its main weaknesses. These men were dinosaurs, in the sense that the world they inhabited for most of their lives is gone forever. For example, Vaillant found that a “warm childhood” was predictive of success, but that almost surely meant something different in the 1920s than it does today. Parents were stricter then; unlike today’s doting parents, they probably did not end every directive with “OK?,” as in “It’s time for bed, OK?,” and the household probably revolved around the husband, not the children. Marriages were different, too. Although Vaillant does not say, it is likely that nearly all the Grant Study men had housewives—something Harvard men are unlikely to acquire now. Thus, many of the findings are so dated that even when they provide unambiguous conclusions, they are unlikely to apply to people today.

In an appendix to his new book, Vaillant describes two other longitudinal studies of adult development—the Glueck Study of inner-city men and the Terman Study of gifted women. Both offer sharp contrasts to the Grant Study. Sheldon and Eleanor Glueck, well-known criminologists, began in the 1940s to study five hundred white male teenagers in Boston, mainly the sons of Irish and Italian immigrants, who had been sentenced to reformatories for juvenile delinquency. The Gluecks chose for comparison a control group of five hundred similar boys who had no history of delinquency. The average IQ of both groups was 95, as compared with 135 for the college men in the Grant Study, and most had not finished high school.

The Gluecks discontinued their work in 1962 when the boys were in their early thirties, but in 1970, Vaillant was able to include the control group of Glueck men (those who had not been delinquents) as a parallel group in the Grant Study. Since then, the nondelinquent inner-city men have been followed in the same manner as the college men. Their outcomes are much worse. On average, they die about ten years younger than the men in the Grant Study, and their health is worse. But twenty-five of them went on to complete high school and graduate from college, and the health and life expectancy of this subgroup has equaled those of the men in the Grant Study, even though their average IQ was 30 points lower and they attended less prestigious colleges. In Vaillant’s view, “parity of education alone was enough to produce parity in physical health.” But these boys must have been special in some other way that led them to seek higher education despite their disadvantaged backgrounds. Elsewhere, Vaillant points to conscientiousness as a quality associated with success; perhaps that is what these Glueck men had.

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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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