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Adaptation to Life Paperback – September 10, 1998

29 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0674004146 ISBN-10: 0674004140 Edition: Reprint

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Editorial Reviews

About the Author

George E. Vaillant is Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press; Reprint edition (August 11, 1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674004140
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674004146
  • Product Dimensions: 8.2 x 5.5 x 1.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (29 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #419,317 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

George E. Vaillant, M.D., is a psychoanalyst and a research psychiatrist, one of the pioneers in the study of adult development. He is a professor at Harvard University and directed Harvard's Study of Adult Development for thirty-five years. He is the author of Aging Well, Triumphs of Experience and The Natural History of Alcoholism, and his 1977 book, Adaptation to Life, is a classic text in the study of adult development. He lives in Orange California, but works part time at Massachusetts GenealHospital.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

93 of 97 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on November 23, 2000
Format: Paperback
I've read ''Adaptation to Life'' several times over the past decade, and I'm not a mental health professional. It's extremely interesting to anyone who wants to learn more about the ego mechanisms of defense, yet is markedly different from the usual self-help tome authored by a psychiatrist or a social worker based on findings from his/her practice. Why? ''Adaptation to Life'' is based on the findings of a study of actual human beings from the time they graduated from college through late adult life (60 years old or so). That long-term view helps to illustrate that what might be construed as good adjustment to life in one's twenties might be less useful when one is over 50. Its main theme, that rather than being absolute and unchanging, mental health develops and matures over a lifetime, is reassuring. I've found the book useful as a ''guide,'' of sorts, to return to again and again as I grow older. The only shortcoming to ''Adaptation to Life'' is that the study did not include women. I'm curious as to whether the development and maturation of ego mechanisms of defense might be different for women than for men. But to dismiss this well-written book entirely for that reason alone would be a mistake; after all, many of the hurdles that must be addressed in the course of human development are the same for males and females. The final plus is that ``Adaptation to Life'' is fairly free of medical jargon and therefore an easy read for non-clinicians.
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23 of 24 people found the following review helpful By Scott716 on October 2, 2005
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This book is amazing. It provides concrete examples based on a wonderful study of a group of Harvard graduates of how different psychological coping methods helped people succeed or fail during their lives.

Its most important finding, in my view, is that peoples circumstances in life play no role in their eventual success or failure. Instead, it is the coping methods that people develop, and the positive effort they put in, that decide their outcomes and happiness.

Most chapters contrast 2 real people from the Harvard study, identifying the opposing psychological methods each used (i.e. one is a procrastinator and another gets things done) and shows how their lives played out. Their behaviors correlated directly with their happiness and success in life. The procrastinator wandered from one job to the next, did not have satisfactory relationships, and did not build wealth. The person who got things done succeeded in business and in personal life.

This book identifies the key mental characteristics necessary to adapt to life, using concrete examples based on a long-term study. It provides a positive message that the circumstances of these subjects birth and background did not matter nearly as much as how much effort they put into life. It is well worth reading.

On the other hand, it is worth noting that these graduates were predominantly white, at least middle-class, often Protestant, and were part of the "greatest generation" that as WWII veterans worked during a time when the US economy was booming.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful By Gardner P. Dunnan on February 6, 2007
Format: Paperback
I purchase copies of this book by the dozen, as I frequently hand it out to friends and associates of all ages. Personally, I have read it at least three times since it first appeared, and I refer to it often.

The book is organized in alternating chapters of theory and case studies. The theoretical chapters are dense, but fascinating, and make a compelling case for the developmental sequence of what Vailliant calls "defenses" - i.e. adaptive mechanisms. The case studies are fascinating and often humorous, and make this an easy book to pick up and read over a period of time. Often I give the book to people who are unhappy with some circumstance in their life or in the lives of their children, stating that the message of the title is that there is no perfect passage through this life - we all face disappointments and setbacks. Therefore, our goal for ourselves and our loved ones should not be a flawless existence, but rather an increasingly mature adaptation to the inevitable setbacks.

Too many of the books on adulthood are depressing formulations of how everything falls apart after age 30. Who wants to believe that? Vailliant is much more encouraging, in that his thesis is that our 50's can be better than our 40's, our 40's better than our 30's. Sounds good to me (and in his follow up book "Aging Well" Vailliant takes the same cohort into their 80's, which can similarly be a time of growth and development.)
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful By Herbert L Calhoun on May 14, 2009
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Unlike Gail Sheehy's "Passages," which is anecdotal and messy in the extreme (and is described elsewhere as little more than intuition passed off as serious science - and who was forced to settle out of court for plagiarism, in any case), George Vaillant's analysis is just the opposite: It comes about as close to serious science as one is likely to get in the field of human relationships - that is, without actually being a purely academic psychological or social psychological analysis.

Whether one likes this book (or its conclusions) or not, Vaillant is a serious Psychologist, and this is a serious piece of work, not to be thrown onto the ignominious heap called "pop" psychology.

The study consisted of 238 of Harvard's most promising graduates who were followed, tested and interviewed from 1939 onwards, to determine what aspects of their lives made for a "good quality of life." Unsurprisingly the author isolated seven attributes that predicted to a "well-adjusted," and presumably a higher quality of and happier lives. They were: Adapting maturely, a good education, a stable marriage, not smoking, not abusing alcohol, modest exercise, and maintaining normal weight.

Somewhat surprisingly, the weight of these and the other psychological factors changed in non-intuitive ways with age. The single constant throughout life was the subjects' relationship with people. Problems did arise of course when the author attempted to establish standards, or rules for what is "happiness," or what is "the good life," or, for what "well-adjusted is to mean more generally. While throughout the study, these could have proven to be problematic, the author finessed them about as well as could be expected.
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