In 1938, Dr. Arlie Bock of Harvard University, with the sponsorship of department store magnate W.T. Grant, began the Harvard Study of Adult Development, better known as the Grant Study. Bock wanted to study healthy people rather than focus on illness as the rest of medicine did. What made for healthy people? Why did some people avoid or overcome harmful psychological conditions? Why could some overcome physical illness and limitations while others sank beneath them and ultimately succumbed to them?
“Combing through health data, academic records and recommendations from the Harvard dean, [Bock's team] chose 268 students — mostly from the classes of 1942, ’43, and ’44 — and measured them from every conceivable angle and with every available scientific tool,” wrote Joshua Wolf Shenk in “What Makes Us Happy?” in the June 2009 issue of The Atlantic.
Bock minutely measured facial and body shape, physical characteristics (some quite arcane), pulse, stamina, brain activity and other physically measurable criteria. Bock also recorded psychological data as well. They intended to poll the men over their lifetimes, and for the most part were able to do so. The study wobbled through funding and leadership challenges, but always stayed alive and in touch with most of the subjects.
In 1967, Dr. George Vaillant, then 33 and fascinated by the kind of longitudinal research the Grant Study was predicated on, took over the study. Vaillant has published its main findings in his books, most notably, "Aging Well."
Over those some 70 years, Bock, Vaillant and their colleagues monitored this privileged cohort of men, many who were scions of wealthy families or at least prosperous. They were smart, ambitious and well-connected. They found success and happiness among them, but he also found failure and unhappiness.
Vaillant concluded that alcoholism is the great destroyer and, combined with smoking, was both a death warrant and inhibitor of marital and other relationship success. Alcoholism is somewhat a chicken-and-egg proposition; job, money pressure, or unhappy marriage can drive one to drink, but Vaillant found that for the most part alcoholism started the skid.
Almost all of the Grant Study men served in World War II. The more combat they saw, the more trauma they subsequently endured and the shorter their lives were.
Some of the men suffered professional, economic and family “failures” and seemed not to have enjoyed much happiness.
A third of the Grant men developed mental disease of one sort or another. Vaillant analyzed and cataloged these mental diseases and dysfunctions — anxiety and depression to manic-depressive disorder and schizophrenia and suicide. These mental conditions took a heavy toll in divorce, alcoholism, stunted relationships and career failure or under-achievement.
Encouragingly, however, Vaillant found that over time many men worked through their mental challenges and other personal adversity. The men who did so most successfully were the ones who got past their regrets, who found meaning in new activities and relationships, or who invigorated old ones. Overcoming regrets was a major factor in making sense of life and enjoying it.
Many of these young men grew up to be successful and happy. Several of the Grant men who betrayed their early promise found happiness later on, often in unique ways and in out of the way places through finding a sense of worth and healthy relationships. Being productive in something one enjoys, even something as seemingly mundane as caring for a church congregation’s books, was a major ingredient of happiness. Some Grant men didn’t find happiness until old age — but they found it nevertheless.
Intriguingly, beyond a certain level, IQ seemed not to bring success and happiness. Likewise, beyond a certain level of comfort, money had little to do with a sense of well-being and accomplishment.
Enjoying full, loving, healthy relationships with family and friends makes us happy. For the indisputable lesson taken from the lives of more than 250 of the best and brightest of American men born 100 years ago, this is the Grant Study blockbuster finding summarized by Dr. George Valliant: “Happiness is love. Full stop.”
Take it from the Grant Study boys.
Greg Bell is the former lieutenant governor of Utah and the current president and CEO of the Utah Hospital Association.