What Is a Good Life?

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,…

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