The Secret of a Good Life

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May 15 2009 12:05 PM

The Secret of a Good Life

Science reporter Joshua Wolf Shenk describes his visit to the famous Grant Study archives (named for the dime store magnate who originally funded the experiment) in the new issue of the Atlantic and includes a video interview of George Vaillant , the longitudinal assessment project's director for the last 42 years. Vaillant's perspective on the 268 "well-adjusted" sophomore male participants' much-examined lives boils down to "loving is the most important," but, as Emily Yoffe pointed out , his conclusion, "happiness is love," seems as clichéd as one tin soldier on judgment day.

In 1937, the creators of the project, also called the Harvard Study of Adult Development, set out to discover "a formula-some mix of love, work, and psychological adaptation-for a good life." The study designed by experts in "medicine, physiology, anthropology, psychiatry, psychology, and social work" measured the mental health of the participants and periodically assigned the subject of each dictionary-sized case file a happiness quotient based on his adaptive mechanisms.

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Trying to get at how the men individually responded and adapted to trials in their lives and where those choices led them, subjects were quantified from worst to best as "psychotic" (paranoia, hallucination, or megalomania), "immature" (acting out, passive aggression, hypochondria"), "neurotic" (intellectualization dissociation repression), or mature (altruism, humor, anticipation). Shenk reports that over the course of the research, "almost a third of the men had...met Vaillant's criteria for mental illness." These men of great potential had power, wealth, and education, but their happiness was not guaranteed in the end. (And the end has arrived for about half of them. As Emily says "they are coming to the point at which their files are closed.")

Their identities are deeply confidential (except for a few, such as Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee, who outted himself ), but the subjects' accomplishments, failures, tragedies, and personal fortunes are documented to a fair thee well. Every era's children have their own unique challenges. Most of the Grant cohort fought in World War II. Later, several ran for U.S. Senate. One (JFK) made it to the White House, and another was a cabinet secretary. Many divorced and remarried multiple times. At least one of the men in the study acknowledged his sexual identity and came out as homosexual. (Shenk is silent on the effect of feminism on the men who, in their 40s during the 1960s, were contemporaries of the successful sexists in grey flannel suits portrayed in the AMC series Mad Men .)

Longitudinal studies, which revisit case subjects many times over a long period, (the best known are Michael Apted's Seven-Up! documentaries ) have always fascinated me, particularly because of the extraordinary commitment required of those being studied. The Harvard undergrads who arranged to have their life milestones (marriages, jobs, children, divorces, illness, loss) chronicled by medical exams, psychological tests, questionnaires, and interviews for at least the next 72 years may have wanted something more useful for their efforts toward posterity than love = happy = good. But for some Grant participants, it sounds like the study was the one constant they could rely on.

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