Why do some folks look back on their lives in old age and say they wouldn’t change much… or anything?
Is there a formula – some mix of love, work, habits or attitudes – that offers the best chance of experiencing the good life?
Researchers at Harvard have examined this question for more than 80 years, following 268 men who entered college in the late 1930s through war, career, sickness, health, marriage, parenthood, grandparenthood and old age.
Their discoveries about what constitutes a well-lived life will surprise you.
Just listen to Dr. George Vaillant. Since 1966, the Harvard Medical School professor has dedicated his career to following the men of Harvard’s “Grant Study,” named after its patron, the department-store magnate W.T. Grant.
Vaillant’s specialty is the longitudinal method of research, the comprehensive study of a small number of people over a long period of time.
His subjects were never a representative sample of society. They were all young men, Harvard students, from relatively privileged backgrounds.
Yet Vaillant’s findings offer profound insights into the human condition. They have universal applications. And they illuminate the one single factor that correlates most highly with a positive life assessment in old age.
From the beginning, the Grant Study was meant to be exhaustive.
Harvard researchers assembled a team that included medical doctors, physiologists, psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers, anthropologists and other specialists.
Over more than eight decades, participants were monitored, interviewed and studied from every conceivable angle, including eating and drinking habits, exercise, mental and physical health, career changes, financial successes and setbacks, marital history, parenthood, grandparenthood, and old age.
They were subjected to general aptitude tests and personality inventories, and were required to provide regular letters and documentation.
Many of the Grant Study men achieved dramatic success.
Some became captains of industry. One was a bestselling author. Four members ran for the U.S. Senate. One served in a presidential cabinet.
And one – JFK (we now know) – was president. (His files are sealed until 2040.)
Some of the subjects were disappointments, too. Case number 47, for example, literally fell down drunk and died. (Not quite what the study had in mind.)
Most of the participants remain anonymous. Although a few, like Ben Bradlee, the longtime editor of The Washington Post, publicly identified themselves.
Over the last several decades, the lives of the Grant men were Vaillant’s personal and professional obsession.
And his analysis enabled him to reach some broad conclusions.
He found seven major factors that predict healthy aging – both physically and psychologically: education, stable marriage, healthy weight, some exercise, not smoking, not abusing alcohol and “employing mature adaptations.”
(Vaillant believes social skills and coping methods are crucial in determining overall life satisfaction.)
However, his most important finding was revealed in an interview in 2008 when he 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 confirms that a successful life is not about the grim determination to get or have more.
Nor is it about low cholesterol levels or intellectual brilliance or career accomplishments.
It’s about human connections: parents, siblings, spouses, children, friends, neighbors and mentors.
Without them, life quickly loses its flavor whatever material successes we enjoy.
Lasting satisfaction is rare outside of meaningful, human relationships.
Look back at your life and you’ll almost certainly find that the most significant moments were births, deaths, weddings and celebrations.
Your most profound moments? When you touched others… or they touched you.
In times of suffering – loss, sickness, death – it is not prescriptions, formulas or advice we seek, but the healing presence of another.
When we forget this – when we think only of ourselves – we choke the source of our development.
Real meaning comes from taking care of those you love, letting them know how you feel.
Fortunately, we have countless opportunities to give a bit of ourselves each day through a thoughtful act, a word of appreciation or a sense of understanding.
As Dr. Vaillant concluded, the greatest success – a life well lived – “is more about us than me.”