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Triumphs of Experience: The Men of the Harvard Grant Study 1st Edition

4.6 out of 5 stars 93 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0674059825
ISBN-10: 0674059824
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Editorial Reviews

Review

George Vaillant tells the story of the Grant Study men though age 91. This is, arguably, the most important study of the life course ever done. But it is, inarguably, the one most brimming with wisdom. If you are preparing for the last quarter of your life, this is a MUST read. (Martin Seligman, author of Authentic Happiness)

Vaillant's fascination with the human condition and his deep insights about development make him a great storyteller, adept at elegantly conveying the essence of humanity. (Laura L. Carstensen, Director, Stanford Center on Longevity)

A fascinating account of the 268 individuals selected for the Harvard Study of Adult Development… Vaillant has done a wonderful job summarizing the study, discussing its major findings, and communicating his enthusiasm for every aspect of the project, which became his life's work starting in 1966. The study has been investigating what makes a successful and healthy life. Initially, this meant looking for potential officer material for the military. Vaillant established what he called 'the Decathlon of Flourishing―a set of ten accomplishments in late life that covered many different facets of success.' With humor and intriguing insights, the author shows how progress in health studies and the passage of time contributed to the constant 'back and forth between nature and nurture.' During Vaillant's tenure, human maturation and resilience became the focus, and now biology is reasserting itself in the form of DNA studies and fMRI imaging, the seeds for future research. The author considers the study's greatest contributions to be a demonstration that human growth continues long after adolescence, the world's longest and most thorough study of alcoholism, and its identification and charting of involuntary coping mechanisms. Inspiring when reporting these successes, his personal approach to discovery repeatedly draws readers in as he leads up to the account of his realization that the true value of a human life can only be fully understood in terms of the cumulative record of the entire life span. Joyful reading about a groundbreaking study and its participants. (Kirkus Reviews (starred review) 2012-09-01)

Of the 31 men in the study incapable of establishing intimate bonds, only four are still alive. Of those who were better at forming relationships, more than a third are living. It's not that the men who flourished had perfect childhoods. Rather, as Vaillant puts it, 'What goes right is more important than what goes wrong.' The positive effect of one loving relative, mentor or friend can overwhelm the negative effects of the bad things that happen. In case after case, the magic formula is capacity for intimacy combined with persistence, discipline, order and dependability. The men who could be affectionate about people and organized about things had very enjoyable lives. But a childhood does not totally determine a life. The beauty of the Grant Study is that, as Vaillant emphasizes, it has followed its subjects for nine decades. The big finding is that you can teach an old dog new tricks. The men kept changing all the way through, even in their 80s and 90s. (David Brooks New York Times 2012-11-05)

Vaillant concludes that personal development need never stop, no matter how old you are. At an advanced age, though, growth consists more in finding new hues and shades in one's past than in conceiving plans for the future. As the Harvard Study shows with such poignancy, older men treat what lies behind them much as younger men treat what lies ahead. The future is what young men dream about; they ponder the extent to which it is predetermined or open; and they try to shape it. For old men, it is the past they dream about; it is the past whose inevitability or indeterminateness they attempt to measure; and it is the past they try to reshape. For the most regret-free men in the Harvard study, the past is the work of their future. (Andrew Stark Wall Street Journal 2012-11-02)

To avid consumers of modern happiness literature, some of Vaillant's conclusions will seem shopworn ('Happiness is love. Full stop.'), while other results of the Grant Study appear to confirm what social science has long posited--that a warm and stable childhood environment is a crucial ingredient of success; or that alcoholism is a strong predictor of divorce. But what's unique about the Grant Study is the freedom it gives Vaillant to look past quick diagnosis, to focus on how patterns of growth can determine patterns of wellbeing. Life is long, Vaillant seems to be saying, and lots of shit happens. What is true in one stage of a man's life is not true in another. Previously divorced men are capable of long and loving marriages. There is a time to monitor cholesterol (before age 50) and a time to ignore it. Self-starting, as a character trait, is relatively unimportant to flourishing early in life but very important at the end of it. Socially anxious men struggle for decades in emotional isolation and then mature past it--relatively speaking. Triumphs of Experience is not only a history of how the Grant men adapted (or not) to life over 70-plus years, but of how author and science grew up alongside them. Yet what unifies Triumphs is the same question posed originally by Bock, the study's founder: What factors meaningfully and reliably predict the good life? Vaillant's mission is to uncover the 'antecedents of flourishing.' (Dan Slater Daily Beast 2012-11-07)

George Vaillant's book on the development and well-being of a longitudinal sample of men, now in their nineties and studied regularly since they were undergraduates at Harvard University, reads like a riveting detective tale... He has a thought-provoking story to tell about the lifelong significance of loving care...Brief life-story vignettes illustrate movingly how adult development and maturation is a lifelong process that strongly relates to the transformative power of receiving and giving love... [The book's] well-evidenced wisdoms on the significance of nurturing relationships offer new multidisciplinary perspectives on the complex issue of nature versus nurture (much needed at a time when medical science and genetics once more dominate studies of human development) and on the lifelong costs of childhood emotional neglect. (E. Stina Lyon Times Higher Education 2012-12-13)

Triumphs of Experience elegantly summarizes the findings of this vast longitudinal study, unique in the annals of research...[The] book analyzes how the men fared over their late adulthood, and indeed their entire lives. In it, Vaillant masterfully chronicles how their life successes, or lack thereof, correlate with the nature of their childhoods, marriages, mental health, physical health, substance abuse, and attitudes. Extensive quantitative findings are interspersed with the detailed stories of individual study participants...Here Vaillant proves that his skills are literary as well as scientific. The case histories are engaging novelistic capsules that artfully bring the quantitative material to life...Many of its findings seem universal. If they could be boiled down to a single revelation, it would be that the secret to a happy life is relationships, relationships, relationships...The other overarching message of this book is that resilience counts...Vaillant is that rare thing: a psychiatrist more interested in mental flourishing than in mental illness. With Triumphs of Experience, he has turned the Harvard men's disparate stories into a single narrative and created a field guide, both practical and profound, to how to lead a good life. (Charles Barber Wilson Quarterly 2013-01-01)

In Triumphs of Experience, Vaillant elegantly and persuasively brings us an answer to the question that launched a thousand snake-oil salesmen: what makes for a successful and happy life? ...[An] engaging work. There are regrettably few studies of this magnitude and even fewer accounts that so ably synthesize the broader insights with the moving parts. (Christopher Croke The Australian 2013-02-09)

Reading like a storybook, the case histories of the individuals provide fascinating insights about how the subjects tackled challenges or succumbed to setbacks. Vaillant superbly explains how these lifelong experiences sculpted these men's final years. Readers can learn more about themselves and what they may expect from life by reading this revelatory and absorbing book. (Aron Row San Francisco Book Review 2013-02-18)

Offers broadly applicable evidence about how everything from early maturity to grandparents' longevity is likely to affect flourishing throughout life...It is hard to overstate the wealth of the data provided in Triumphs of Experience or the ambition of the project, composed of survey responses, health records, and interviews. This archive of human life is poised to answer questions shorter studies can barely hint at...Vaillant offers striking conclusions about a range of factors affecting human flourishing. (Adam Plunkett New Republic online 2013-03-22)

This fascinating book of 'numbers' and 'pictures' is the final summary volume of a longitudinal psychosocial study focused on the optimum health of 268 males from Harvard College classes...This book is well worth reading for the discoveries contained in its pages; it has the potential to advance knowledge about adult development. (J. Clawson Choice 2013-04-01)

The factor Vaillant returns to most insistently is the powerful correlation between the warmth of your relationships and your health and happiness in old age. (Scott Stossel The Atlantic 2013-05-01)

About the Author

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

  • Hardcover: 480 pages
  • Publisher: Belknap Press; 1 edition (October 30, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674059824
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674059825
  • Product Dimensions: 5.8 x 1.3 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (93 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #246,586 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

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Some of the oldest and most contentious debates on human beings centre around the relative influence of heredity (genetics), environment and individual voluntary action on growth and development. These include whether mental illness has genetic origins, what factors determine "success" in life, and whether adults continue to "develop" as they grow older (or whether all development happens before a certain age). These questions cross disciplinary boundaries as they involve concepts from psychology, psychiatry, sociology, and genetics.

Great thinkers like Freud and Erikson made significant contributions to these debates, but many of their contributions were based on intuitive theorizing rather than rigorous empirical evidence. With time and careful research, some of their theories have been upheld, and others disproved! The studies that have made the most impact are longitudinal studies in which a carefully chosen cohort of respondents was tracked periodically over an extended period of time.

The Harvard Grant Study

One of the most well known of these studies is the Havard Grant study which commenced in the late 1930s and early 1940s and continues till this day. The survivors of the cohort (who were Harvard sophomores when they were recruited) have now entered their 90s, and the data collected therefore allows several inferences to be drawn on adult development.

George F. Vaillant was the director of the Harvard Grant Study for over two decades. His latest book, The Triumphs of Experience, presents the latest findings. I found it a fascinating read as it not only uncovers new insights, but also questions some of the conclusions reached at earlier stages of the study.
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Format: Hardcover
This book is a Must-Read for Senior Citizens, by George E. Vailant, M.D. Through extensive research that was conducted on a long-term basis, the author presents reports on all aspects of male life as he offers welcome news for men who are retired. Dr. Vailant reports that our lives become more fulfilling than before as he presents comprehensive and concise information that's based on a study of 200 men, and explains what it's like to bloom beyond retirement,while he includes reports on the entire life span. In addition, the author shares his findings on all aspects of male life, offers reports on major findings, and concludes what makes a successful and healthy life. Interesting facts are presented on DNA studies, alcoholism,and how human growth continues long after maturation. The author is a Great storyteller as he explains the Grant Study of men through age 91, which is the most important study of the life span ever done. Babyboomers will enjoy this intriguing story of human development,as they read about the findings in a study of individuals for the Harvard Study of Adult Development. This incredible book is insightful, with a blend of humor as it draws the reader's attention immediately. 'TRIUMPHS OF EXPERIENCE' is also Enjoyable, Educational, and filled with Wisdom. Highly Recommended!
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A well written and documented description of a life-long cohort study of middle class young white men conducted by established investigators. Important insights are provided into critical psycho-social and medical issues bearing on all-round success in life. The importance is stressed of a warm early upbringing as well as the capacity for and receptiveness of intimacy (love.) Particularly revealing is the major impact of heredity and the destructive effect of alcoholism on the life history, sometimes emerging only after many years. A must read.
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This book is a fascinating study of 268 men who were followed since 1938. It shows how actions one takes at one point in their lives effects what happens later in life. It also asks interesting questions about correlations between things. For example, do people who exercise regularly healthier or do people who are healthier exercise more? Which is the cause and which is the effect? These are the types of questions that are answered.

This book would be interesting to someone who wants to know about the long term effects of certain things (marriage, exercise, smoking, drinking, education etc.) on men who are starting from a position where they should have some control over their own lives. i.e. white men who graduate from college with good prospects in front of them.
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Well, start with full disclosure: I'm a Harvard man too, from a much later class than the subjects of this study. But the study consciously sought the crème de la crème: the students with the best physical, social, and intellectual profiles. With my notably modest accomplishments in all those areas, I'd never have gotten near the study.
So, what does it prove that a very elite group of people mostly did well in life? Not much. The interest attaches to the few who did NOT do so well. Many transcended a rough childhood, but few could manage a lifetime of being locked in self, or a lifetime of drinking too much, or a lifetime of defending oneself too successfully against love and companionship. Some did find love and/or sobriety late, but personality mattered. A simple metric--extraversion minus neuroticism on the standard personality scale--predicted an awful lot.
Another reviewer has pinpointed some problems with the statistics here. I would add that scoring big, vague, fuzzy concepts as if they were precise is always problematic. The study did its best--using independent raters, over time--and I think did a very good job, but between this scoring and the problem of using simple bivariate statistics, I sometimes wondered about the conclusions. There is also the problem that the study researchers ran, apparently, hundreds of correlations, so when something shows up as significant at .01, you should be a bit skeptical. Striking, though, are the many that showed up significant at .001, a rather rare thing in psychology.
One problem is the list of defenses. Some are "immature," including "autistic fantasy," whatever that is; how is it different from ordinary fantasy?
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