The credit for growing old with grace and vitality, it seems, goes more to ourselves than to our stellar genetic make-up.
So concludes the synopsis of Triumphs of Experience, the latest book to come out of the Harvard Grant Study, an ambitious and comprehensive project that has tracked the life course of 268 male members of the Harvard classes of 01938 – 01940 for seventy-five years now.
The study began in 01938 as an effort to examine optimal human health: unlike ordinary medical studies at the time, the project’s directors were interested not in what made people sick, but rather in what caused them to thrive. Since then, teams of researchers have tracked an enormous amount of variables in the lives of their subjects. They’ve conducted regular physiological examinations and laboratory measurements, as well as IQ tests, personal interviews, and psychiatric evaluations. They’ve even spoken with the study participants’ parents, wives, and children.
There are other longitudinal studies that rival this one in length, but George Vaillant, the study’s director from 01972 to 02004, explains that none are as comprehensive as the Harvard Grant Study:
… what makes the Grant Study unique is that the men have given us permission to present their lives in three dimensions, so that the book is not only about statistics, but it’s about stories. The book is the history of how the men, and the science, and its author changed from a pre-World War II view of the world, to the way we see it in 02012.
Funded by a variety of sources over the years, the study offers a comprehensive history of individual lives (including that of John F. Kennedy, a study participant until his assassination fifty years ago), but also of the advances we’ve made in research methodologies and data collection: its files are stored in a variety of media, from the IBM punch cards used during the project’s first years, to the digital spreadsheets used today.
A first comprehensive report on the study was published in 01998, when participants were in their late 50s. Triumphs of Experience extends that portrait into the men’s old age, but still conveys the same basic message: happiness and professional success have little to do with status or income, and everything with the warmth and stability of your interpersonal relationships. What Vaillant emphasizes is that the course of our lives is not determined by the hardships we encounter, but by the resilience we show in the face of adversity – and the more connected we are with others, the better we are at coping with life’s difficulties.
Of course, a group of male Harvard undergraduates, particularly those of the late 01930s, is unlikely to be representative of the general US population – let alone of the rest of the world. Still, there are lessons to be drawn from this study. Not the least of these is the reminder that some of the most profound insights into the nature and experience of human life cannot be found through quick, narrow experiments: they require the dedication and patience of a long-term, multi-generational project.