Triumphs of Experience: The Men of the Harvard Grant Study Reprint Edition
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“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
“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
“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
“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
“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
“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
“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
“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
“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
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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.
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? What little I got in life was due to my fantasizing in youth and then acting on it--"dream big dreams, then put on your overalls," as people used to say. Conversely, "mature" defenses include things like altruism, which seems to me neither unique to "maturity" nor a "defense." It's a natural human thing. No one is more altruistic than a little kid--she may throw a fit over "Mine!" in the sandbox, but will then turn right round and give the prized toy to a friend, or to Mom. Humor also is classified as a "mature defense." It is neither mature nor a defense--it's normal human behavior, again seen more often in kids than in grown-ups. Of course you can use it defensively, but that's a different issue. And my favorite defense, denial, is not listed--doesn't it qualify any more? Where would I have been without denial (which, as my daughter is fond of reminding me, is not a river in Egypt)? I would have recognized my own limitations much sooner, to my considerable loss. Those fantasies paid off thanks to hard work and a lot of luck. Realism would have done me in. One must remember that defenses are there for a reason. We NEED to defend ourselves in this world. I would seriously rethink the entire "defenses" issue.
This aside, the book is excellent (if rather rambling and repetitious) and a very worthwhile read. I have become convinced by this and other long-term studies that such lifelong prospective studies are the very best way of finding out about people--not the only way, but the best way. We need more and more of them, with secure funding.
Top international reviews
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.
It really does illustrate that a) people can and do change; b) not necessarily in the ways we expected; and c) maybe our theories and models don't explain all behaviour.