What two things do lifelong studies agree on when it comes to living a long, happy life?
While different in some respects, both followed a sample of people from youth until death and provided insights into what makes for a happy, healthy life.
What two big ideas do they both strongly agree on?
1) A Happy Childhood Matters More Than You Think
The Grant Study found being happy when you’re old is tied to having had a warm childhood:
Vaillant concludes that a loving childhood is one of the best predictors of mid and late-life riches: “We found that contentment in the late seventies was not even suggestively associated with parental social class or even the man’s own income. What it was significantly associated with was warmth of childhood environment, and it was very significantly associated with a man’s closeness to his father.”
The Terman Study realized that “Parental divorce during childhood was the single strongest social predictor of early death.”
The long-term health effects of parental divorce were often devastating— it was indeed a risky circumstance that changed the pathways of many of the young Terman participants. Children from divorced families died almost five years earlier on average than children from intact families. Parental divorce, not parental death, was the risk. In fact, parental divorce during childhood was the single strongest social predictor of early death, many years into the future.
Sadly, our own childhoods are not something we can change, but this is something to keep in mind if you are or will be raising kids.
2) Relationships are the Most Important Thing
What was the Terman study’s most important recommendation for a longer life?
…connecting with and helping others is more important than obsessing over a rigorous exercise program.
Read that sentence again. It wasn’t receiving help from others, it was giving it:
We figured that if a Terman participant sincerely felt that he or she had friends and relatives to count on when having a hard time then that person would be healthier. Those who felt very loved and cared for, we predicted, would live the longest. Surprise: our prediction was wrong… Beyond social network size, the clearest benefit of social relationships came from helping others. Those who helped their friends and neighbors, advising and caring for others, tended to live to old age.
The Grant Study found that “the capacity to love and be loved was the single strength most clearly associated with subjective well-being at age eighty.”
Vaillant’s insight came from his seminal work on the Grant Study, an almost seventy-year (and ongoing) longitudinal investigation of the developmental trajectories of Harvard College graduates. (This study is also referred to as the Harvard Study.) In a study led by Derek Isaacowitz, we found that the capacity to love and be loved was the single strength most clearly associated with subjective well-being at age eighty.
“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.‘”
Vaillant’s other main interest is the power of relationships. “It is social aptitude,” he writes, “not intellectual brilliance or parental social class, that leads to successful aging.” Warm connections are necessary—and if not found in a mother or father, they can come from siblings, uncles, friends, mentors. The men’s relationships at age 47, he found, predicted late-life adjustment better than any other variable, except defenses. Good sibling relationships seem especially powerful: 93 percent of the men who were thriving at age 65 had been close to a brother or sister when younger. 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.”
The Grant Study realized there was a single yes/no question that could predict whether someone would be alive and happy at age 80:
“Is there someone in your life whom you would feel comfortable phoning at four in the morning to tell your troubles to?”
Is there someone in your life whom you would feel comfortable phoning at four in the morning to tell your troubles to? If your answer is yes, you will likely live longer than someone whose answer is no. For George Vaillant, the Harvard psychiatrist who discovered this fact, the master strength is the capacity to be loved.
Join 25K+ readers. Get a free weekly update via email here.