By Barbara Reiss, OD
A long term study (The Grant Study) appears to have some answers. In 1938 researchers from Harvard’s medical school recruited 268 men (it was all men then) from the Harvard classes of 1938-44 with the intention of discovering what factors lead to an “optimal” life. The men in the study were chosen because they were healthy and highly intelligent. Not all were from wealthy families–there were scholarship students in the group as well.
The study delved into the subjects’ past histories including interviews with three generations of relatives. They were evaluated physically and psychologically and given extensive questionnaires asking about every aspect of their lives. They have been interviewed every 10-15 years since the study’s inception.
George Vaillant, the study’s director from 1972-2004 wrote a book about the Grant study called “The Triumphs of Experience.” Unique in its breadth and scope, as Vaillant puts it, this research represents “one of the first vantage points the world has ever had on which to stand and look prospectively at a man’s life from eighteen to ninety.”
Several threads ran through the lives of the men who flourished:
-As children, they had warm loving parents and good relationships with siblings.
-They were able to cope maturely with setbacks and delay gratification.
-They were resilient, warm and sociable.
-As middle aged adults, they had close adult relationships: good friends, contact with their family, and an active social life.
Not surprisingly (because it has been reported in many other studies as well), married men did dramatically better in the study than divorced or never married men. Vaillant states “The majority of the men who flourished found love before thirty, and that was why they flourished.” Men who enjoyed warm relationships in their youth went on to live the fullest, happiest, most successful lives.
The Grant Study does show that a difficult childhood definitely creates obstacles to success and happiness. However, the study also revealed, according to Vaillant, that “people really can change, and people really can grow. Childhood need be neither destiny nor doom.” Some of the study participants who started without the advantages of warm and loving childhood homes were able to flourish in their later years. Vaillant describes “restorative marriages and maturing [psychological] defenses” as “the soil out of which new resilience and post-traumatic growth emerge.”
In addition to supportive relationships, the study found other factors that predicted overall life success:
-Emotional maturity–being able to deal with life’s challenges with humor, resilience and even stoicism led to significant financial success.
-Character traits such as being practical, organized, steady, dependable and trustworthy were predictive of both success and good health in later years.
-Physical fitness was predictive of both a participant’s ability to form successful relationships as well as of health in later life.
What do we learn from this study?
Love and connection are the strongest predictors of life satisfaction. Contentment at work is more important than financial success or power. And no matter how we started in life, we’re all capable of becoming happier, and of developing the ability to cope with challenges.
For more information about George Valiant and The Grant Study, check out this link:
Photo: Copyright: iqoncept / 123RF Stock Photo
Dr. Reiss retired from private practice in 2013 after working for many years in an ophthalmology practice in Huntington, NY, where she specialized in contact lenses. She spent the early part of her career working in the contact lens industry in clinical research and professional relations. Dr. Reiss has been a Fellow of the American Academy of Optometry since 1980. She has served as national chair of its Admittance Committee, and has been a member of its Membership Committee and President’s Task Force. She currently serves on the Communications Committee and helps edit the weekly Eye-Mail News Brief. She has been a member of the Board of Directors of the American Board of Optometry since 2011. Dr. Reiss lives in Austin, TX where she enjoys yoga, cooking, making new friends and exploring Texas hill country.