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Triumphs of Experience: The Men of the Harvard Grant Study Paperback – May 4, 2015
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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) --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
About the Author
George E. Vaillant is Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.
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I suggest this this book also because it is easy to read, humorous, and interesting from from start to finish. Mr. Valiant really connects with the average-Joe here.
The only question I have is about statistical analysis. The member group was selectively chosen from several Harvard undergraduate classes according to varying criteria. Accordingly, questions may be raised about representation. Clearly, they do not represent the pre-WWII male population of the U.S. Neither do they represent even the Harvard pre-war classes. To say that there is a statistical difference between data seems to raise many questions. One can say that various findings are interesting or important; this is fine. But to conclude with the statistical terminology of being significant or very significant presumes a probability that the difference exists in a general population. In fact, the differences exist in the sample of participating members, which is appropriate and very interesting. In the case of the study the 268 sample is the universe.
I liked Triumphs of Experience a great deal and have purchased two copies for friends and recommended it to others.
However, this is the report of a unique study in which a few hundred men were followed up for more than 75 years, during which numerous developmental observations were made. It effectively kills a whole lot of sacred cows, while throwing a very bright light on a number of factors need for a healthy, happy and successful life. And based on fact, not theory.
Of course, some of the factors cannot be changed - you can't for example, trade in your parents. However, what does become apparent - surprisingly for those of us brought up in the traditional views of brain development - is that the brain and the personality continue to develop and grow for one's whole life, so that one's destiny is not irreversibly written in the genes.
If you are used to reading scientific publications, this one has all the statistics, but by way of illustration also a lot of case reports.
I couldn't put it down
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