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The Grant Study

George Vaillant

George Vaillant

In a post three days ago, I made reference to an article by Joshua Wolf Shenk in the new June issue of The Atlantic, but didn’t focus on the content of the article, intending to come back to it in a separate post. Let me do so briefly here. If you haven’t seen the article, you may have read about it in David Brooks’ column earlier in the week in the NYT.

Shenk’s article describes the famous longitudinal study of the lives and health of over 200 men that began when they were students at Harvard in the late 1930s and continues to this day. Officially called the Harvard Study of Adult Development, it was begun by Arlie Bock, a doctor at Harvard’s health services, with funding by W.T. Grant. The study has evolved over the decades, as the article details, and it has been shaped most significantly by George Vaillant, the doctor who ran the study for decades and has written and lectured on it extensively.

Vaillant is still involved in the study as co-director, but it is largely run now by fellow co-director Robert Waldinger, who happens to be a college classmate of mine. I had the good fortune at our 35th reunion last June to hear Bob talk about the study as part of a panel of doctors in the class who are experts on various aspects of aging. (The topic was “How to Age Gracefully to 100.”) As well as having their health monitored regularly, the men respond to questionnaires and have extensive in-person oral interviews every few years. The picture that emerges is rich, complex, and endlessly fascinating, and the Atlantic article, in its short space, gives a good sense of this richness. The men have had all imaginable levels of success and failure in their careers and personal lives. More to the point, they have typically experienced both. How they look back on this as they age is yet another facet of life that the study has begun to illuminate.

The article interweaves a discussion of the study, Vaillant’s thoughts on it, and Vaillant’s own life with glimpses at the lives of some of the study participants, leaving one wanting to know more. Here’s one excerpt, which may be a bit over-stated, but does give a taste of the issues raised by the study.

Can the good life be accounted for with a set of rules? Can we even say who has a “good life” in any broad way? At times, Vaillant wears his lab coat and lays out his findings matter-of-factly. (“As a means of uncovering truth,” he wrote in Adaptation to Life, “the experimental method is superior to intuition.”) More often, he speaks from a literary and philosophical perspective. (In the same chapter, he wrote of the men, “Their lives were too human for science, too beautiful for numbers, too sad for diagnosis and too immortal for bound journals.) In one of my early conversations with him, he described the study files as hundreds of Brothers Karamazovs. Later, after taking a stab at answering several Big Questions I had asked him—Do people change? What does the study teach us about the good life?—he said to me, “Why don’t you tell me when you have time to come up to Boston and read one of these Russian novels?”

Indeed, the lives themselves—dramatic, pathetic, inspiring, exhausting—resonate on a frequency that no data set could tune to. … Secrets come out. One man did not acknowledge to himself until he reached his late 70s that he was gay. With this level of intimacy and depth, the lives do become worthy of Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky.

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