Triumphs of Experience: The Men of the Harvard Grant Study 1st Edition
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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)
About the Author
- Publisher : Belknap Press; 1st edition (October 30, 2012)
- Language: : English
- Hardcover : 480 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0674059824
- ISBN-13 : 978-0674059825
- Item Weight : 1.58 pounds
- Dimensions : 5.75 x 1.75 x 8.5 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #967,951 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
Top reviews from the United States
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For those reasons, I read this book slowly, taking nearly a year to read every word. I can't help wonder if the time thinking about this was more fruitful or the data in and of itself, but of course the answer is both.
Taking the time, thinking about these men, and imagining how the lessons learned could be grafted into the lives of my sons has been incredibly helpful. And I am so very grateful that George Valliant wrote this book.
It did not chart a map, but it set a course that affirmed over and over again that the things you get right matter more than the things you do wrong and love is enough to bring about great joy.
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. The Harvard Grant Study draws its conclusions from rigorous multivariate analysis, but Vaillant presents the findings with a distinctive and rare combination of statistical rigour and empathy for his subjects - in addition to tables containing the statistical results, there are profiles (disguised, of course) of different respondents of the study, and these give the reader a sense of being part of the study team.
The original design and subsequent evolution of the study show how much our models of adult development have changed over time. At the time the study started, physical constitution and mental health indicators were expected to be important predictors of subsequent progress of the study. Parental/family relationships and childhood upbringing were thought to be unimportant. Yet, the latest Harvard Grant Study findings show that loving relationships during childhood are important for longevity and success in life.
Findings of the Harvard Grant Study
Some of the important findings of this study reported in The Triumphs of Experience:
Individuals develop through their adult lives as well, not only upto the stage of adolescence.
The impact of childhood trauma decreases over time; more importantly, the positive experiences of a loving childhood have enduring impact.
Being well integrated and self-driving while young helps people live longer.
Divorce led to happier marriages than the bottom third of sustaining marriages.
Alcoholism had bigger negative impacts than measured by most previous studies. It accounted for more than half of the divorces in the Grant Study. The study shows that it is unlikely that alcoholics can return safely to social drinking, thereby upholding the methodologies followed by organizations like Alcoholics Anonymous.
The involuntary coping styles predicted by Freud exist, and they are important for human effectiveness.
Important Lessons for Management of Long-term Research Programs
The Harvard Grant Study is interesting from a research management perspective as well. Over its 70+ year lifespan so far, the study has transcended several research directors and team members, but the integrity of the study has not been compromised. George Vaillant estimates that about $ 20 million has been spent on the study over time, with an average cost of $10,000 per research paper published. The study has had different sponsors at different times, and while the study had to adapt itself to the priorities of these sponsors (such as a major retailer, cigarette company and a program against alcoholism), it still managed to sustain the collection of data related to its core research questions.
With its emphasis on the choice of appropriate control variables and other related issues of study design, this book is a great primer on how to design and adapt longitudinal research studies for maximum research impact.
Rishikesha Krishnan, IIM Bangalore
Top reviews from other countries
The fact is that we should have lots more such studies. Almost every study would be worth while when repeated sufficiently often.
But we have this one, and it is quite interesting!
Very engaging and very thoughtful exploration of the history of the Grant Study and the lives it touched.
Buy this book if you are interested in reading how the men in the study develop relationships, find happiness (or lack thereof) with ever changing memories.