What makes you happy?

This article, and the underlying study, is so good that I almost don’t dare talk too much about it here.  You really should just read it

In a nutshell: for the past 72 years, a sample of 268 men have been followed and their entire history – medical, familial, physical, emotional, mental – recorded in great depth.  The study is coming to end, mainly because only half of the original group are still alive, and they are in their late eighties.  It has a huge amount to teach us about how our lives shape our personalities, and vice versa.

The Grant Study, as it was called, took its sample from Harvard, and ended up including politicians, best-selling novelists and even one president (you’ll have to read the article to find out who).  However, not everyone was a success; far from it.  The study, then, was able to reveal some insights into what makes for a happy, healthy life, and how those things may vary at different stages.

What allows people to work, and love, as they grow old? By the time the Grant Study men had entered retirement, Vaillant, who had then been following them for a quarter century, had identified seven major factors that predict healthy aging, both physically and psychologically.

Employing mature adaptations was one. The others were education, stable marriage, not smoking, not abusing alcohol, some exercise, and healthy weight. Of the 106 Harvard men who had five or six of these factors in their favor at age 50, half ended up at 80 as what Vaillant called “happy-well” and only 7.5 percent as “sad-sick.” Meanwhile, of the men who had three or fewer of the health factors at age 50, none ended up “happy-well” at 80.

What factors don’t matter? Vaillant identified some surprises. Cholesterol levels at age 50 have nothing to do with health in old age. While social ease correlates highly with good psychosocial adjustment in college and early adulthood, its significance diminishes over time. The predictive importance of childhood temperament also diminishes over time: shy, anxious kids tend to do poorly in young adulthood, but by age 70, are just as likely as the outgoing kids to be “happy-well.” Vaillant sums up: “If you follow lives long enough, the risk factors for healthy life adjustment change. There is an age to watch your cholesterol and an age to ignore it.”

There’s much more to it than simple ‘healthy living’ advice though (even the “happy-well” subjects were not uniformly content).  It is ultimately a meditation on the distance between the life you want and the life you get, and the success – or otherwise – of this group of men in dealing with that gap.

In an interview in the March 2008 newsletter to the Grant Study subjects, Vaillant was asked, “What have you learned from the Grant Study men?” Vaillant’s response: “That the only thing that really matters in life are your relationships to other people.”

Sunday, May 17th, 2009 Uncategorised

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