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Copyright 2009. The New York Times Company They Had It Made
By DAVID BROOKS May 12, 2009 Op-Ed Columnisthttp://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/12/opinion/12brooks.html?_r=1&em
In the late 1930s, a group of 268 promising young men, including John F. Kennedy and Ben Bradlee, entered Harvard College. By any normal measure, they had it made. They tended to be bright, polished, affluent and ambitious. They had the benefit of the world’s most prestigious university. They had been selected even from among Harvard students as the most well adjusted.
And yet the categories of journalism and the stereotypes of normal conversation are paltry when it comes to predicting a life course. Their lives played out in ways that would defy any imagination save Dostoyevsky’s. A third of the men would suffer at least one bout of mental illness. Alcoholism would be a running plague. The most mundane personalities often produced the most solid success. One man couldn’t admit to himself that he was gay until he was in his late 70s.
The men were the subject of one of the century’s most fascinating longitudinal studies. They were selected when they were sophomores, and they have been probed, poked and measured ever since. Researchers visited their homes and investigated everything from early bed-wetting episodes to their body dimensions.
The results from the study, known as the Grant Study, have surfaced periodically in the years since. But they’ve never been so brilliantly captured as they are in an essay called “What Makes Us Happy?” by Joshua Wolf Shenk in the forthcoming issue of The Atlantic. (The essay is available online today.)
The life stories are more vivid than any theory one could concoct to explain them. One man seemed particularly gifted. He grew up in a large brownstone, the son of a rich doctor and an artistic mother. “Perhaps more than any other boy who has been in the Grant Study,” a researcher wrote while he was in college, “the following participant exemplifies the qualities of a superior personality: stability, intelligence, good judgment, health, high purpose, and ideals.”
By 31, he had developed hostile feelings toward his parents and the world. By his mid-30s, he had dropped off the study’s radar. Interviews with his friends after his early death revealed a life spent wandering, dating a potentially psychotic girlfriend, smoking a lot of dope and telling hilarious stories.
Another man was the jester of the group, possessing in college a “bubbling, effervescent personality.” He got married, did odd jobs, then went into public relations and had three kids.
He got divorced, married again, ran off with a mistress who then left him. He drank more and more heavily. He grew depressed but then came out of the closet and became a major figure in the gay rights movement. He continued drinking, though, convinced he was squeezing the most out of life. He died at age 64 when he fell down the stairs in his apartment building while drunk.
The study had produced a stream of suggestive correlations. The men were able to cope with problems better as they aged. The ones who suffered from depression by 50 were much more likely to die by 63. The men with close relationships with their siblings were much healthier in old age than those without them.
But it’s the baffling variety of their lives that strikes one the most. It is as if we all contain a multitude of characters and patterns of behavior, and these characters and patterns are bidden by cues we don’t even hear. They take center stage in consciousness and decision-making in ways we can’t even fathom. The man who is careful and meticulous in one stage of life is unrecognizable in another context.
Shenk’s treatment is superb because he weaves in the life of George Vaillant, the man who for 42 years has overseen this work. Vaillant’s overall conclusion is familiar and profound. Relationships are the key to happiness. “Happiness is love. Full Stop,”
he says in a video.
In his professional life, he has lived out that creed. He has been an admired and beloved colleague and mentor. But the story is more problematic at home. When he was 10, his father, an apparently happy and accomplished man, went out by the pool of the Main Line home and shot himself. His mother shrouded the episode. They never attended a memorial service nor saw the house again.
He has been through three marriages and returned to his second wife. His children tell Shenk of a “civil war” at home and describe long periods when they wouldn’t speak to him. His oldest friend says he has a problem with intimacy.
Even when we know something, it is hard to make it so. Reading this essay, I had the same sense I had while reading Christopher Buckley’s description of his parents in The Times Magazine not long ago. There is a complexity to human affairs before which science and analysis simply stands mute.Men at 65: New Findings On Well-Being
By DANIEL GOLEMAN January 16, 1990http://www.nytimes.com/1990/01/16/science/men-at-65-new-findings-on-well-being.html?fta=y
THE secret of emotional health among older men is not a successful career, a happy marriage or a stable childhood, new findings suggest. It lies instead in an ability to handle life's blows without passivity, blame or bitterness.
The findings, which contradict widely held theories about the importance of early life for emotional well-being in adulthood, are among recent conclusions of a study of 173 men who have been scrutinized at five-year intervals since they graduated from Harvard in the early 1940's.
The project, known as the Grant study after the W. T. Grant Foundation, which initially supported it, is one of a handful that have intensively assessed people at regular intervals through their adult years. Such studies are particularly valuable for the understanding of psychological development because they allow researchers to see what factors matter, for better or worse, later in life.
The researchers defined emotional health at 65 as the ''clear ability to play and to work and to love,'' and a feeling of satisfaction with life.
These were among their findings:
* Pragmatism and dependability are particularly important.
* Many factors in early life, even devastating problems in childhood, had virtually no effect on well-being at 65.
* Being close to one's siblings at college age was strongly linked to emotional health at 65.
* Severe depression earlier in life caused problems that persisted.
* Traits that were important at college age, like the ability to make friends easily, were
unimportant later in life.
The latest data were collected by George E. Vaillant, a psychiatrist at Dartmouth Medical School. He and his wife, Caroline O. Vaillant, a social worker, reported the findings in an article in the January issue of The American Journal of Psychiatry. In 1977 Dr. Vaillant published a book, ''Adaptation to Life'' (Little, Brown), based on findings of how the men fared at the age of 47.
The men hardly represent a cross-section of Americans. All were Harvard undergraduates, white, and in good mental and physical health when selected. The researchers say that by avoiding complicating factors like sex, economic status and race, they were able to focus on more subtle forces that propel one person forward while another lags.
One of the most surprising results, Dr. Vaillant said, was that having been close to one's brothers and sisters at college age strongly predicted emotional well-being in adulthood - far more strongly, for example, than having had a good marriage or successful career. Those who were only children or who said they were distant from their siblings at college age fared poorly at 65 compared with those who had at least one close brother or sister.
Before age 50, the most powerful predictors of adult mental health were an emotionally close home life as a child and parents who encouraged trust and initiative. But by 65 those factors faded in significance, and closeness to siblings in childhood ''became as powerful a predictor of later-life adjustment'' as three other factors taken together: family closeness, good relations with parents and the absence of emotional problems in childhood. Dr. Vaillant said researchers could only guess at the reasons. ''It's intriguing, a sleeper variable that didn't show up as important until the men reached 65,'' said Dr. Vaillant. ''I would guess that those who were close early in life had the seeds of a good relationship late in life.''
At the age of 47, the quality of relationships with siblings was not an important factor; having a good marriage and enjoyable job were more strongly related with life satisfaction and emotional health. But in the decade before retirement age, neither mattered as much as did having been close to a sibling earlier in life.
'Lots of Surprises'
By and large, those most satisfied at 47 were still happy at 65. But ''there were lots of surprises,'' said Dr. Vaillant. Poor health or alcoholism in that 18-year span set some men back; those with ''strong stoicism'' at 47 were doing well at 65.
The researchers found little evidence that several factors long assumed to be important in lifelong psychological development had much effect on well-being at 65. They included being poor or orphaned in childhood, having parents who divorced (or who were happily married) and having emotional problems in childhood or college.
For instance, of the 204 men in the original group, 13 felt troubled enough during college to have seen a psychiatrist. But by the age of 65 these men fared no worse than the rest of the group.
''In the long run, people are extraordinarily adaptable,'' Dr. Vaillant said. ''Given enough time, people recover and change; a half-century perspective shows that time heals.''
One of the most devastating experiences over the course of life was a severe depression, Dr. Vaillant found. Of the 204 men, 21 had such a depression at some point between the ages of 21 and 50. In the latest study, 15 of the 21 were chronically ill or had died.
''I expected that the men in the study would be better-adapted and protected than most,'' Dr. Vaillant said. ''If they got depressed, it would pass with little lasting effect. But depression led to a greater global disruption of life than any other single factor.''
Buffers Against Depression
Having close family relations may have been a buffer against depression, since the researchers found that having had a ''bleak childhood'' predicted depression later in life. But not all of those who had a difficult childhood became depressed. And for those who escaped depression, bad times in childhood seemed to have little long-term effect.
Only 7 percent of those who did well at 65 had not been close to a brother or sister, Dr. Vaillant said. Of the 21 men who became seriously depressed at some point in their lives, 12 were only children or said they were estranged from their siblings by college age.
Whether they were only children or were distant from brothers and sisters, he said, ''the effects of the isolation seem to be the same in later life.'' Psychoanalytic theories of depression hold that emotional warmth early in life, whether with parents or siblings, can be a buffer against depression later.
One of the most potent predictors of well-being at 65 was the ability to handle emotional crisis maturely. Immature reactions included becoming bitter or prejudiced, collecting injustices, feigning cheerfulness and chronically complaining without allowing anyone to help.
The best way to handle emotional crisis, the study found, is to control the first impulse and give a more measured response. ''It's having the capacity to hold a conflict or impulse in consciousness without acting on it,'' Dr. Vaillant said. ''You can acknowledge the clouds, but also see the silver lining.''
Two lifelong traits, pragmatism and dependability, also emerged as particularly important to emotional health at 65 - more so than being clever in analytic work or having a creative flair.
Those who in college had been seen as being good at practical organization in their course work, rather than as having a theoretical, speculative or scholarly bent, were among the healthiest in mind at retirement age, the study found. So were those who as college sophomores were rated by a psychiatrist as ''steady, stable, dependable, thorough, sincere and trustworthy.''
On the other hand, traits that seemed important for psychological adjustment in college mattered less and less over the years. Among these were spontaneity and the ability to make friends easily.
By 65, being pragmatic and well-organized was the trait that most strongly predicted well-being. ''It's another way of measuring perseverance,'' Dr. Vaillant said. ''At this age, perseverance is more important than whether you can run the bases fast.''