What makes for a good life?


good life

In the 1940’s the Grant Study began at Harvard, following a cohort of young men for their entire lives in an effort to determine what predicts health and well-being.

George Valliant took over shepherding the study in 1966. He recently published a book on its findings and how it affected him personally: Triumphs of Experience. Dan Slater has a piece in the Daily Beast about it. Here are some highlights:

To avid consumers of modern happiness literature, some of Vaillant’s conclusions will seem shopworn (“Happiness is love. Full stop.”), while other results of the Grant Study appear to confirm what social science has long posited—that a warm and stable childhood environment is a crucial ingredient of success; or that alcoholism is a strong predictor of divorce. But what’s unique about the Grant Study is the freedom it gives Vaillant to look past quick diagnosis, to focus on how patterns of growth can determine patterns of wellbeing. Life is long, Vaillant seems to be saying, and lots of shit happens. What is true in one stage of a man’s life is not true in another. Previously divorced men are capable of long and loving marriages. There is a time to monitor cholesterol (before age 50) and a time to ignore it. Self-starting, as a character trait, is relatively unimportant to flourishing early in life but very important at the end of it. Socially anxious men struggle for decades in emotional isolation and then mature past it—relatively speaking.


Vaillant concludes that a loving childhood is one of the best predictors of mid and late-life riches: “We found that contentment in the late seventies was not even suggestively associated with parental social class or even the man’s own income. What it was significantly associated with was warmth of childhood environment, and it was very significantly associated with a man’s closeness to his father.”


“Lives change and things can get better,” writes Vaillant. “But the people who don’t learn to love early pay a high price.”

And a quote from one of the study participants who wasn’t very financially successful but who proved to be among the happiest and most mature:

“With age you acquire more understanding,” Boatwright explained when he was 79. “The things you felt so passionate about when you are young, you learn to let go of. You realize that all those things you thought you were going to be, you ain’t. As I have often said, at this stage in life it’s not what you’ve accomplished in a day, but how the day felt.”

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