- Paperback: 480 pages
- Publisher: Belknap Press: An Imprint of Harvard University Press; Reprint edition (May 4, 2015)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0674503813
- ISBN-13: 978-0674503816
- Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 1.8 x 8.5 inches
- Shipping Weight: 11.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 116 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #172,588 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Triumphs of Experience: The Men of the Harvard Grant Study Reprint Edition
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About the Author
George E. Vaillant is Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.
Top customer reviews
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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
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.
Most recent customer reviews
Many pearls gleaned from this longitudinal study.
Take care with your consumption of alcohol!