Triumphs of Experience: The Men of the Harvard Grant Study by George E. Vaillant ’59 (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2012)
Every once in a while, driven by the need for results, I read a book backward. Usually these are books of the life-assistance variety, especially those offering a path to a more contented state. In such cases, I flip immediately to the conclusion. One wants to get on with it.
The title Triumphs of Experience: The Men of the Harvard Grant Study, by George E. Vaillant ’59, just about leads the reader by the hand to the last chapter. This is the next in Vaillant’s series of looks at the famous Harvard Grant Study, which has been funded almost continuously for 70 years. There is still much he wants you to know.
The 64 Harvard sophomores who were chosen for the study in 1938 because they “were likely to lead successful lives,” were eventually joined by cohorts of inner-city men and gifted women. Back then, researchers believed that future leadership could be predicted by body type, a form of head-to-toe phrenology. Physiological and psychological measurements were taken and retaken throughout the years, as personal milestones and professional accomplishments occurred for study members—or did not. It turns out that body type does not predict a successful life.
But what does?
Under Vaillant’s more than 40 years of leadership, answers shifted from theories of physical anthropology to those of psychology, then to epidemiology. For this book, he applied what he calls the “decathlon of flourishing” to his 80- to 90-year-old subjects: ten broad, late-life outcomes of occupational, marital, mental, physical, and biological success. For back-to-front readers, here are a few fortifying conclusions: people change and grow (though not inevitably); the impact of trauma lessens with time; and “what goes right in childhood predicts the future far better than what goes wrong.” And here are a few surprising conclusions: inner-city men are more prone to chronic medical illnesses, but not those who become college graduates; Democrats have no advantage over Republicans when it comes to marriages, mental health, altruism, or enviable aging; poor maternal relationships are associated with later dementia.
As in his many previous books, Vaillant lets the study members tell their own stories through interviews and writings. Throughout the decades, their lives have provided data for theories of alcoholism, adaptive psychological defenses, and spirituality. Now, their lives are largely behind them. Most speak reflectively, poetically, and, ultimately, reassuringly. “Even a hopeless midlife can blossom into a joyous old age,” Vaillant writes.
This book differs from his previous backward glances not only in topic but in perspective. While Vaillant the researcher tracked his subjects around the country and across the globe, Vaillant the man aged along with them. For obvious reasons, he came to view aging as a process of potential instead of pathology and decline. “It’s a story about Time—studying it and living in it,” he writes. The 32-year-old has become a rueful 78-year-old, looking one more time through his own data, and over his own aging shoulder.
Elissa Ely ’88 is a psychiatrist at the Massachusetts Mental Health Center.