What if we could take a relatively homogeneous group of people, follow them their whole adult lives, and see what factors contributed to their wellbeing over an entire lifespan?
In 1938, a group of researchers began the Grant Study, a comprehensive study of 238 students at Harvard University. The researchers on the study tracked the students throughout their entire lives gathering data including the student’s health, income, religious practices, activities, profession, family, and quality of their relationships. In 2012, the Grant Study’s findings were published in the book Triumphs of Experience by George Vaillant, who had been the Director for more than 3 decades. The group all came of age in time to serve in World War II. They were all male, white, and although some came from privileged families, over ½ worked their way through school or were on scholarships. The students in the study included one future U.S. President.
30% of the men had already lived past the age of 90, giving the researchers a unique insight into the factors which contributed to their long lives, successes, and struggles.
By far, the single factor that contributed most to failed marriages, depression, ill-health, and death was alcoholism. Being raised in a family devoid of meaningful and close personal relationships was also closely correlated with later struggles with career, health, and family.
The Most Powerful Lesson
Surprisingly, the study showed that that the men who did well in old age did not necessarily do well in mid-life. What seemed to stand out is that while it is possible to rebound from an unhappy childhood, having a happy childhood with close personal relationships becomes a life-long source of strength. George Valliant noticed that study participants, even those who suffered major hardships, trauma, poverty and deprivation in childhood, did much better in later life if they also had a few adults during their childhood that they were really close to. “What goes right is more important than what goes wrong,” says Vaillant. The benefits that flow from a positive relationship with a relative, mentor, friend, or teacher can very often outweigh early hardships in life.
One of the most powerful lessons of the Grant Study is to the degree that having positive relationships in early life were a predictor of success in later career, family, health, income, and the warmth of relationships. Close, warm relationships were one of the most frequently cited factors in having overall happiness in later life. In Vaillant’s own words, “After 75 years, the Grant Study points to a straightforward 5-word conclusion. Happiness is love. Full stop.”
And the U.S. President? That would have been John F. Kennedy, Harvard class of 1940.