November 21, 2012

What George Vaillant has to teach us about aging happily

David Brooks,  The Heart Grows Smarter

But as this study — the Grant Study — progressed, the power of relationships became clear. The men who grew up in homes with warm parents were much more likely to become first lieutenants and majors in World War II. The men who grew up in cold, barren homes were much more likely to finish the war as privates.

Body type was useless as a predictor of how the men would fare in life. So was birth order or political affiliation. Even social class had a limited effect. But having a warm childhood was powerful. As George Vaillant, the study director, sums it up in “Triumphs of Experience,” his most recent summary of the research, “It was the capacity for intimate relationships that predicted flourishing in all aspects of these men’s lives.”
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In case after case, the magic formula is capacity for intimacy combined with persistence, discipline, order and dependability. The men who could be affectionate about people and organized about things had very enjoyable lives.

But a childhood does not totally determine a life. The beauty of the Grant Study is that, as Vaillant emphasizes, it has followed its subjects for nine decades. The big finding is that you can teach an old dog new tricks. The men kept changing all the way through, even in their 80s and 90s.

The secret to a longer life? A puppy, a happy marriage and plenty of good friends

Owning a dog, and having a happy marriage and plenty of good friends are key to longevity, according to a landmark study.

The Grant study found all these are more important than where you were born, whether you were born into a wealthy or poor family or what social class you are in.
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George Vaillant,  "Having a loving family is terribly important, but from 70 to 90 years old you'd be surprised at the people who, despite enormous deprivation, manage to find love later on.    If you want to be happy, and don't have a six-month-old baby to trade smiles with, get yourself a puppy.  The finding on happiness is that happiness is the wrong word. The right words for happiness are emotional intelligence, relationships, joy, connections and resilience."

At Amazon Triumphs of Experience: The Men of the Harvard Grant Study

For Older Adults, Close Connections are Key to Healthy Aging

The study shows that relationships are the key to healthy aging, said Dr. Vaillant, who advised cultivating younger friends for their energy and fresh perspective. “You must have somebody outside yourself to be interested in — not hobbies or crossword puzzles or your stock account — but flesh and blood,” he said. “That’s why volunteerism is so important — the only way to stop thinking of your own unique wonderful self is to think of others.”
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“In the same way you exercise, pay your taxes and eat a healthy diet, you need to start replacing friends as soon as you lose them, particularly around retirement age,”

At the Harvard University Press, a short video of George Vaillant and his new book

Begun in 1938, the Grant Study of Adult Development charted the physical and emotional health of over 200 men, starting with their undergraduate days. The now-classic Adaptation to Life reported on the men’s lives up to age 55 and helped us understand adult maturation. Now George Vaillant follows the men into their nineties, documenting for the first time what it is like to flourish far beyond conventional retirement.

Reporting on all aspects of male life, including relationships, politics and religion, coping strategies, and alcohol use (its abuse being by far the greatest disruptor of health and happiness for the study’s subjects), Triumphs of Experience shares a number of surprising findings. For example, the people who do well in old age did not necessarily do so well in midlife, and vice versa. While the study confirms that recovery from a lousy childhood is possible, memories of a happy childhood are a lifelong source of strength. Marriages bring much more contentment after age 70, and physical aging after 80 is determined less by heredity than by habits formed prior to age 50. The credit for growing old with grace and vitality, it seems, goes more to ourselves than to our stellar genetic makeup.

Andrew Stark reviews in The Wall Street Journal

If a lifetime of achievement is your goal, then it is better to have had an emotionally supportive childhood than a socially privileged upbringing. Pragmatic and practical men are more likely to be politically conservative, while sensitive and intuitive men lean liberal. Other findings upset conventional wisdom (Republican men are no less altruistic than Democratic men) or proved to be just downright confounding: The longer-lived a man's maternal grandfather, the more likely it is that he will enjoy mental health.
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Gradually, though, the study acquired a more literary quality as the men's lives and characters unfolded in deeply individual ways. And with this change came another: Instead of trying to predict the futures of the study's subjects, attention turned to how well they were coming to terms with their lengthening pasts.

The surviving men are now all around 90. For them, the question of the moment is "so—what'd you think?" And the answer is surprisingly complex. Harvard psychiatry professor George Vaillant tells us in "Triumphs of Experience"—the latest installment in the series of Grant Study books he has written since taking leadership of the project 40 years ago—that what a man thinks at a late stage of life much depends on how successfully he has come to terms with life's regrets.

Christopher Caldwell reviews the book in The Weekly Standard

The study does deliver surprises in describing the effects of alcoholism. Vaillant may be boasting when he writes that his work was able “to disprove the illusion that securely diagnosed alcoholics can return to successful social drinking” since that illusion had been long-dispelled by the 1980s. But he is right that alcoholism is “the most ignored causal factor in modern social science.” In this study, alcoholism is the most important factor in divorce. (Certainly it causes marital problems; it may also cause problem marriages in the first place.) Booze also affects longevity considerably more than total cholesterol, frequent exercise, and obesity do.
Posted by Jill Fallon at November 21, 2012 10:19 AM | Permalink