What Harvard’s Grant Study Reveals about Happiness and Life by Dan Slater

What Harvard’s Grant Study Reveals about Happiness and Life by Dan Slater


The famous Grant Study tracked hundreds of Harvard men from youth to death to determine what predicts contentment.

Nov 2012

….Back then [the 1930s, 1940s], scientists believed that physical constitution and breeding—rather than, say, “emotional intelligence,” a happy childhood, or a capacity for love—were the best predictors of a successful life.

Those men with masculine body builds—muscular mesomorphs (narrow hips, broad shoulders)—were favored over skinny ectomorphs and pudgy endomorphs.

…Grant withdrew his funding in 1947, and the study sputtered along for the next 20 years.

In 1966, George E. Vaillant, a 32 year-old psychiatrist, was put in charge of the study, and it became his lifework. Vaillant, who was 10 to 15 years younger than the Grant members, had spent his early career studying recovery from heroin addiction.

He’d become interested in how men used involuntary defenses, or coping mechanisms, to evolve and adapt incrementally to life’s setbacks. His new job, then, was a good fit.

Following the Grant men through marriage, parenthood, divorce, career troubles, second (and third) marriages, bouts with alcoholism and other vices, parental death, and the golden years of grandchildren and physical lessening, would allow Vaillant to, as he put it, investigate the mysteries of incremental adaptation to his heart’s content.

…In the new book, Vaillant returns bearing another three decades of data as well as his own lengthening perspective. 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.”

See Also:

How Smiles Were Packaged and Sold by Carol Tavris

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