George Vaillant
George Vaillant

The June, 2009 issue of The Atlantic has an article on the Harvard Developmental Study (also known as the Grant Study after department-store magnate W. T. Grant,  who provided initial funding), begun in 1937 to trace the long-term course of healthy adult development.  Here is a link to a video in which George Vaillant, who has been the study’s lead researcher for over 40 years, discusses life lessons that he extracted the accumulated data.  Though the Atlantic article frames the study as being about happiness, the intent all along has been to study each life in all its complexity, regardless of whether the outcome was joy or misery.

Vaillant is a psychoanalytically trained psychiatrist whose initial involvement stemmed from his fascination with the rich trove of information found in the study’s archive.  He was successful at revitalizing the study at a time when resources were quite limited, and has continued the work unabated until its final phase, when data collection is nearing the end as participants die off. 

In reviewing the information gathered, Vaillant concluded that the men’s lives were successful or unsuccessful not because of their good or poor fortune—the favorable or unfavorable events that happened to them—but because of their adaptations to those events.  By “adaptations,” he didn’t mean so much conscious coping strategies but unconscious reactions to the world.  In other words, he was interested in the defense mechanisms first identified by Freud and subsequently described most thoroughly by the ego analysts.  Adaptations range from the primitive, psychotic reactions, through the immature and neurotic reactions, to the healthy, mature reactions. 

Besides adaptations, Vaillant found that relationships were invaluable to fashioning meaningful and fulfilling lives.  In 2008, he told an interviewer that “the only thing that really matters in life are your relationships to other people.”  In particular, he found that the Harvard men’s relationships at age 47 were the best predictor of adjustment in late life.  Not surprisingly, relationships early in life were also important to later life adjustment.  One finding is particularly fascinating: “93 percent of the men who were thriving at age 65 had been close to a brother or sister when younger.”  Sibling relationships have been neglected in most psychological theories; maybe they are more important than we realize.  

We tend to think of positive emotions as something people always seek.  Who doesn’t want to be happy or joyful?  As described in the article, Vaillant thinks positive emotions have a cost as well.  Hopes can be dashed; love has inherent within it the possibilities of rejection and loss; the pride felt in success can be accompanied by the fear of future failure.   Vaillant thought that it was because of such considerations that some of the Harvard men avoided experiences that would have been likely to evoke positive emotions.  For example, one of the men, a physician, retired when he reached 70.  His wife secretly contacted many of his patients and asked whether they would be interested in writing a letter of appreciation.  A hundred of them did.  His wife collected these and presented them to him.  During an interview with Vaillant eight years later, the man proudly showed the box containing the letters.  He started crying, and said “I’ve never read it.”  Vaillant’s comment about the incident was, “It’s very hard for most of us to tolerate being loved.”  What a paradox: we desperately desire yet desperately fear love.