'Triumphs of Experience': Studying the Happy Life

Friday, November 30, 2012

Grandparents, Old, Geriatric (Flickr: roblisameehan)

Between 1939 and 1944, more than 200 Harvard students – all "physically and mentally healthy" men – were recruited to participate in a study. Norman Mailer and Leonard Bernstein were rejected, but the other 200-some odd students had the privilege of being tracked by Harvard Medical School for the rest of their lives.

At first, the purpose of the study was to answer a question: What predicts a happy life?

But as the men reached their 60s, 70s, and 80s, the focus of the study shifted, as researchers began to look at how the men’s lives unfolded and how they came to terms with what they did and didn’t do.

Dr. George Vaillaint, professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and author of "Triumphs of Experience" has been overseeing the study since his early 30s.

"It's been a terribly exciting ride to watch these men grow, and then in writing this book, to look back and realize hey, I'm not the same person I was 40 years ago," Dr. Vaillaint says of the study. 

"We've had biographies of people like Winston Churchill, but, you know, that's through 20-20 hindsight, and here it was always a new day," Dr. Vaillaint explains. "There were many times in mid-life on some men that you thought they had it made in the shade, and then at 80 they didn't, or conversely people you'd given up on, then discovering that between 70 and 90 growth continues to occur." He describes one man who, at 30, had a great job, and a steady girlfriend, but who was a closeted alcoholic. His life unraveled, while another man's - someone who at 30 was anxious and alone - ended up with a loving family and an important place in his community.

Money and social class did little to determine who would be happy and successful - indeed, very few of our day-to-day concerns mattered to these men over their lifetimes. 

"This is one of the lessons and mysteries of the study," Dr. Vaillaint says. "Probably the greatest human skill you can have is the ability to take love in and metabolize it." Those who were able to accept love were the ones who were able to grow - even well into old age. 

In one video about the findings of the study, Dr. Vaillaint notes in summary, "Happiness is love. Full stop." But though we know this, intuitively, it is nevertheless difficult to practice what we preach. 

"I think if you asked my children they would all say that I've been more interested in having a brilliant career, and less interested in just hanging out with them," Dr. Vaillaint says. "If I had it to do over again, I would've spent more time with my children."

Guests:

George Vaillaint

Produced by:

Mythili Rao

Comments [4]

Rachel Sacco from Brooklyn, NY

You can't generalize a white, upper class, (presumed) straight, american man's experience
In life to the rest of humanity. While I appreciate the thorough data and the beginning of a better understanding of the human experience: white, straight, Harvard educated men do not represent me or all of America.

Jul. 16 2014 08:50 PM
Honey from San Diego, Ca.

I enjoyed the commentary but, it seemed over simplified for such an extensive study. I thought there would be more interesting life experiences, or more people commenting about their life realizations. Or, more of what this extensive study revealed.
I guess I was hoping for more.

Dec. 27 2012 12:21 PM
Larry Fisher from Brooklyn, N.Y.

So, happiness is a roll of the dice and gambling on revealing oneself in love?

Nov. 30 2012 01:48 PM

Has there ever been a study comparable to this done on women?
Anything that is somewhat similar?

Thankyou.

NPR is a great gift.
Debbiesheen
Deboeahsheen@gmail.com

Nov. 30 2012 10:22 AM

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