Is there a formula—some mix of love, work, and psychological adaptation—for a good life? For 72 years, researchers at Harvard have been examining this question, following 268 men who entered college in the late 1930s through war, career, marriage and divorce, parenthood and grandparenthood, and old age. Here, for the first time, a journalist gains access to the archive of one of the most comprehensive longitudinal studies in history. Its contents, as much literature as science, offer profound insight into the human condition—and into the brilliant, complex mind of the study’s longtime director, George Vaillant.The study is named after the original funding source (Grant), which lasting for the first ten years. I have only quoted a few paragraphs that I found the most intriguing.
(Arlie) Bock [the first researcher] assembled a team that spanned medicine, physiology, anthropology, psychiatry, psychology, and social work, and was advised by such luminaries as the psychiatrist Adolf Meyer and the psychologist Henry Murray. Combing through health data, academic records, and recommendations from the Harvard dean, they 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.
But it turned out that the lives were too big, too weird, too full of subtleties and contradictions to fit any easy conception of “successful living.” Arlie Bock had gone looking for binary conclusions—yeses and nos, dos and don’ts. But the enduring lessons would be paradoxical, not only on the substance of the men’s lives (the most inspiring triumphs were often studies in hardship) but also with respect to method: if it was to come to life, this cleaver-sharp science project would need the rounding influence of storytelling.So one of the stories we get is really about Vaillant and his perspective:
Yet, even as he takes pleasure in poking holes in an innocent idealism, Vaillant says his hopeful temperament is best summed up by the story of a father who on Christmas Eve puts into one son’s stocking a fine gold watch, and into another son’s, a pile of horse manure. The next morning, the first boy comes to his father and says glumly, “Dad, I just don’t know what I’ll do with this watch. It’s so fragile. It could break.” The other boy runs to him and says, “Daddy! Daddy! Santa left me a pony, if only I can just find it!”
Vaillant’s other main interest is the power of relationships. “It is social aptitude,” he writes, “not intellectual brilliance or parental social class, that leads to successful aging.” Warm connections are necessary—and if not found in a mother or father, they can come from siblings, uncles, friends, mentors. The men’s relationships at age 47, he found, predicted late-life adjustment better than any other variable, except defenses. Good sibling relationships seem especially powerful: 93 percent of the men who were thriving at age 65 had been close to a brother or sister when younger. In an interview in the March 2008 newsletter to the Grant Study subjects, Vaillant was asked, “What have you learned from the Grant Study men?” Vaillant’s response: “That the only thing that really matters in life are your relationships to other people.”
The next three paragraph are the ones I'm particularly interested in with my Appreciative Inquiry hat on. Positive emotions are so key to successful transitions and I'm interested in any new information on the subject.
Vaillant became a kind of godfather to the field, and a champion of its message that psychology can improve ordinary lives, not just treat disease. But in many ways, his role in the movement is as provocateur. Last October, I watched him give a lecture to Seligman’s graduate students on the power of positive emotions—awe, love, compassion, gratitude, forgiveness, joy, hope, and trust (or faith). “The happiness books say, ‘Try happiness. You’ll like it a lot more than misery’—which is perfectly true,” he told them. But why, he asked, do people tell psychologists they’d cross the street to avoid someone who had given them a compliment the previous day?Brooks ends his op-ed piece with an appreciation of the skill that Schenk uses in weaving bits about Vaillant's life into his work. I would guess that the quotation from Vaillant in the last paragraph I quoted above says as much about Vaillant as it does about the man he interviewed. Brooks ends his piece with: "There is a complexity to human affairs before which science and analysis simply stands mute."
In fact, Vaillant went on, positive emotions make us more vulnerable than negative ones. One reason is that they’re future-oriented. Fear and sadness have immediate payoffs—protecting us from attack or attracting resources at times of distress. Gratitude and joy, over time, will yield better health and deeper connections—but in the short term actually put us at risk. That’s because, while negative emotions tend to be insulating, positive emotions expose us to the common elements of rejection and heartbreak.
To illustrate his point, he told a story about one of his “prize” Grant Study men, a doctor and well-loved husband. “On his 70th birthday,” Vaillant said, “when he retired from the faculty of medicine, his wife got hold of his patient list and secretly wrote to many of his longest-running patients, ‘Would you write a letter of appreciation?’ And back came 100 single-spaced, desperately loving letters—often with pictures attached. And she put them in a lovely presentation box covered with Thai silk, and gave it to him.” Eight years later, Vaillant interviewed the man, who proudly pulled the box down from his shelf. “George, I don’t know what you’re going to make of this,” the man said, as he began to cry, “but I’ve never read it.” “It’s very hard,” Vaillant said, “for most of us to tolerate being loved.”
Comment: As I mentioned in the middle of the piece, I am particularly interested in how positive emotions assist in people's abilities to move into the future in a positive way. The importance of love is a message that Jesus brought us and it is a keystone message in both the Gospel of John and the Epistles of John and this message of love was spoken loud and clearly by Tobias Heller's message to Provice II (see my sermon for last Sunday) But if it's true that "It's very hard for most of us to tolerate being loved, " (I wonder if that's a man-thing, or a thing of men of "a certain age" or culture (African Bishops take note), then other positive emotions need to come into play, although I don't see how one can be happy without love. If you meet someone Like Archbishop Desmond Tutu and experience his amazing ability to show God's love to those around him and to laugh and have fun, you can see the power of positive emotions to effect change for good. Love and humor and compassion and gratitude and forgiveness and joy and hope and trust and faith: all positive emotions and IMHO all necessary for happiness.