What Makes a Happy Life?

This is the fundamental question asked by the Grant Study, a 72-year longitudinal psychological study of 268 men who entered Harvard college in the late 1930’s.  Grant Study researchers have followed these men throughout their entire lives, sending out surveys every two years, conducting physicals every five years, and extensive personal interviews every 15 years.

Study director George Vaillant’s hypothesis is that happiness is determined primarily by how well we cope with challenges and misfortune.  Our “adaptations” or unconscious response mechanisms to personal difficulty can be detrimental or can help us build character, falling along the range from psychotic, the worst kind of adaptation, through immature, neurotic, and finally, mature adaptations like altruism, humor, and sublimation (channelling our anxiety into positive, creative endeavors).

The Grant Study participants were chosen for being seemingly exemplary young men, “well-adjusted” in the psychological parlance of the time.  Many acheived greatness, becoming billionaires, Cabinet members, Senators, and one president, John F. Kennedy.

Some of the observations of the study may seem surprising:

1. Study subjects who were shy or anxious in young adulthood were just as likely as more socially-adjusted subjects to find happiness after mid-life.

2. Subjects who seemed unusually mature in young adulthood were sometimes merely suppressing thier true feelings and motivations and became self-destructive in midlife, while some of those who seemed less mature and disciplined flowered in later adulthood.

3. Cholesterol levels at age 50 have no correlation to health in old age. (Another bit of evidence against the cholesterol hypothesis.  My view is that blood cholesterol is the body’s defense against damage by free-radicals, and not the cause of heart disease.)

4.  Exercise in young adulthood was more predictive of mental health than physical health by midlife, while depression was a great predictor of physical debility or death by age 63.

5. Happiness in no way correlates to success, fame, wealth or social status, but to a web of loving relationships with siblings, spouses, friends, children and grandchildren.

Dr. Vaillant’s Seven Factors of Healthy Aging for Mind and Body

1. Employing mature adaptations to life’s challenges

2. Education

3. Stable marriage / relationships

4. Not smoking

5. Not abusing alchohol

6. Exercise

7. Maintaining a healthy weight

Journalist Joshua Wolf-Shenk, author of Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness, is the first journalist given access to the files of the Grant Study.  You can read his story in the June issue of the Atlantic Magazine.


For another illuminating longitudinal study, I also highly recommend director Michael Apted’s documentary series starting with “Seven Up!”  It tracks the lives of 14 children from age 7 in 1964 through the present day, with new installments every seven years.


~ by nolashaolin on May 20, 2009.

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