What The Harvard Grant Study Can Teach Us All About Aging Happily

In 1938 a group of researchers set out to create a study unlike any that had come before. The idea was to follow a carefully selected group of men from their time in college until the end of their lives.

Shockingly, they managed to raise the money to fund it (or at least fund the first few years), and the Harvard Grant Study was born. From the Harvard class of 1942-1944, 268 men were selected based on their intelligence, personality, and physical exceptionalism (this was the time of eugenics, when scientists believed physical traits led to better intelligence and leadership. Spoiler: they were wrong).

For over 75 years, and with many different researchers and grant donators, the study has followed almost every single one of these men, checking in with them frequently. While the study has never released the names of participants, some have outed themselves, including American President John F. Kennedy, and longtime editor of The Washington Post, Ben Bradlee, as well as four men who ran for US senate, a best selling novelist, a member of the presidential cabinet, an Assistant Secretary of State, and a Fortune 500 CEO.

George Vaillant has been the director of the Grant study since 1972, and while he stepped down from running the program in 2004, he still follows it actively, and recently wrote a book summarizing the data called Triumphs of Experience. In it, he analyses years of research to unearth what really matters in living a fulfilling, and therefore, successful, life, as well as what leads to a longer one; ideally the two merge.

While the study is by no means perfect- for one, it only includes white, Harvard educated men- it is still one of the most comprehensive lifelong studies to ever be done, and there are lessons to be learned from it. Here are some of the things Vaillant thinks we can learn in order to live our best lives.

More Than Any Other Factor, Love Leads To Success

In 2009, Vaillant told The Atlantic: “The only thing that really matters in life are your relationships to other people.” He was immediately challenged by many in the media for exaggerating, or choosing to ignore other more salient factors in a successful life. So Vaillant set out, through the data, to show that he didn’t just have his head in the clouds. The data shows that in the study of 268 men, the 58 men with the highest scores for warm relationships in their lives made an average annual maximum salary of $141,000 more than the 31 men with the lowest scores. These men also showed better health and mental dexterity as they aged. 

Also of note: men with warm childhood relationships with their mothers earned an average annual income of $87,000 more a year than men who had had uncaring mothers. There were also less likely to develop dementia, and had higher work effectiveness ratings. Men with warm childhood relationships with their fathers showed less anxiety, happier marriages, and increased “life satisfaction” until 75. 

However, someone with an unloving childhood is not doomed to failure. One of the Grant studies most successful men, “Godfrey Minot Camille," came from one of the “bleakest” homes in the Grant study, and suffered from crippling hypochondria into his thirties. On the tenth anniversary of the Grant Study, the researchers gave each man an A through E for anticipated future personality stability. Camille received an E.

But at age 35, Camille experienced a life shift after he was hospitalized for fourteen months, this time for legitimate tuberculosis. He left changed, feeling for the first time like someone had taken care of him. He developed into a successful psychiatrist, and had one of the warmest relationships with his children that Valiant ever saw in the study. Camille himself wrote: “Before there were dysfunctional families, I came from one….only love can make us real. What seems marvelous is... how restorative it can prove. I never dreamed my later years would be so stimulating and rewarding.”

It is worth noting that after age 75, familial childhood warmth no longer dictates happiness. It seems that after 75, the bonds of love we've formed as adults with control over our own lives is far more important than anything that happened to us as children.

Smoking Really Will Kill You

In fact, it kills you more than anything else other than alcohol. Avoid smoking, and you will live longer. Smoking, surpassed only by alcoholism, is the greatest contributor to an early death.

Alcoholism Leads To Depression, And Not The Other Way Around

While in hindsight, many men in the study remembered depression, or a deeply disruptive life event like divorce, as coming before they became dependent on alcohol, the Grant Study’s real-time interviews show that it was actually almost always the other way around. Alcoholism proved to be the most prevalent factor in Grant men’s divorces, and often led to job failures, and it was clear that the men began drinking heavily before the issues appeared.

Importantly, the data shows that a family history of alcoholism more than doubles the likelihood that a person will become an alcoholic. If you have a genetic propensity for alcoholism, it's important that you work to avoid that issue in your own life, because it leads to many others.

Artists Take Longer To Hit Their Stride, But When They Do, It Can Be Magical

Vaillant is the first to point our that the original Grant Study researchers did not value or understand the creative mind. Both the young Norman Mailer and Leonard Bernstein were rejected from the study; guess they weren't impressive enough! But through the Grant Men, Vaillant has learned that artists take longer to flourish, and while their paths are usually less linear, they can eventually achieve artistic greatness.

In his book, Vaillant focuses on “Daniel Garrick,” a man whom up until the age of fifty looked like he was on the road to becoming one of the least successful Grant Men. When he was 26, one study psychiatrist wrote: “He does not yet, and probably never will, reach the understanding necessary to be a happy person.” But the truth was Garrick had simply not yet developed.

In midlife, he turned a childhood passion for theater into a full time career, and spent the later part of his life playing opposite actors such as Gwyneth Paltrow, Lynn Redgrave, and Olympia Dukakis. At 78 he remarried to the love of his life, and a researcher wrote “He is extraordinarily successful in both love and work. His marriage to Rachel is clearly a deep, joyful, connection that sustains him, and makes him weep with gratitude.” Here, Vaillant quotes Freud: “Before the problems of the creative artist, analysis must, alas, lay down its arms.”

People Change

The beauty of a lifelong study is that the data keeps on giving. Valiant admits that as many of the men reached their late sixties, he didn’t expect much to change. He was dead wrong. There were career shifts, late-in-life marriages (see example above), religious epiphanies, and active sex lives well into many of the Grant Men’s nineties. The study demonstrates that "adult development continues long after adolescence, that character is not set in plaster, and that people do change. Even a hopeless midlife can blossom into a joyful old age….Adult development is a lifelong process.”

Liberals Have More Sex

Vaillant, a lifelong liberal, admits to being biased: he expected to see that liberals lived an overall happier and more successful life. His expectations were not met. There is absolutely no correlation between warm and loving relationships and your political affiliation. The one thing that is definitely different? The amount of sex you're having. While the the seven most conservative men in the study stopped having sex on average by the age of 68, the seven most liberal men in the study were still having sex on average well into their eighties.  “I have consulted urologists about this,” Vaillant says. “They have no idea why it might be so.”