George-VaillantOn October 30, 2015, we had a Q&A Interview with George Vaillant, MD, eminent Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, long-term Director of the Study of Adult Development, and author of 9 books, including Triumphs of Experience: the Men of the Harvard Grant Study.

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George Vaillant on Triumphs of Experience (2 mins)


triumphsTriumphs of ExperienceSome people seem to flourish in later life, discovering happiness and feeling content with the path their lives have taken. Others may become crotchety old men and women, full of criticism, regrets and complaints. Is there a formula or some combination of interpersonal, work, and psychological factors that predicts a “good life” in terms of happiness, health, success, and longevity?

The physician who oversaw health services at Harvard University for most of the 1930’s, Arlie Bock, had a vision of the future: pre-WW2 medical research was too focused on sick people, symptoms, and diseases, when it should be exploring what it took to “live well” or successfully. He teamed with W.T. Grant (the dime-store magnate) to develop the Harvard Longitudinal Study; the name morphed several times and in 1947 officially became the Harvard Study of Adult Development, but is commonly referred to as the ‘Grant Study,’ recognizing its first funding source. Its purpose was to “transcend medicine’s usual occupation with pathology by learning something about optimum health and potential, and the conditions that promote them.”

Initiated in 1938 with a select group of 64 healthy, well-adjusted Harvard sophomores (the university was all male at that time), the study expanded to include 268 sophomore men from classes through 1944. All the men participated in a regular schedule of in-depth medical exams, psychological tests, questionnaires, lengthy individual interviews, and home visits to collect history from parents. The decades of data fill thick files and, more recently, computer hard drives. Methodology, instruments and variables measured have shifted somewhat over the last 75 years depending on funding sources, on the background and interests of the Study’s four different directors, and as psychological and sociological research evolved and new tools and technologies emerged. When the study began, data collection included such variables as medical history, socioeconomic status, personality traits, and various constitutional variables like body build, athletic strength, and physical activity.

george1Interestingly, the 268 promising young men in the Grant Study included Ben Bradlee (1921-2014), the legendary Washington Post editor, and John F. Kennedy. In a fascinating interview in the Atlantic, Bradlee talks about his life including his memories of the Grant study. He took part in regular interviews for almost 60 years. Bradlee, himself, writes about the Grant study (using his own interview data from the study) in his memoir, A Good Life. In all, members of the study ran for the US Senate; one became a Governor and one, of course, a president. (Kennedy’s files have been withdrawn from the study and sealed until 2040.)

The project has become one of the longest-running–and most comprehensive–longitudinal studies of mental and physical development and well-being in history. After the first 10-15 years, shifts and reductions in funding threatened its continued existence, reducing frequency of data collection to what could be accomplished with very few stalwart researchers on board.

Enter George Vaillant, who joined the Grant Study in 1966 as a lead researcher (when he was 32 years old) and became its 3rd director five years later. Under his leadership for almost 40 years, the Grant Study came to life again–and flourished. His focus as director was on charting what contributed to coping or adaptation, resilience, and well-being–a precursor to what is now established as the arena of Positive Psychology. Even after the Study’s 4th director took the helm in 2005 (introducing vaiables such as DNA and neurobiology), Vaillant has been involved in conducting interviews and extracting important findings from the mounds of data.

A prolific writer and natural storyteller, Vaillant has generated 9 books over the last 40 years, with several dedicated exclusively to emerging findings from the Grant Study. As the lives of the Harvard men unfolded, Vaillant has conducted many of the in-depth interviews, following the same men through ups and downs, successes and failures, health and relationship problems, and periods of mental illness (by age 50, about one third of the men met criteria for diagnosis though none did when first selected) and alcoholism (apparently the most destructive factor in health, happiness, and longevity for the men).

Triumphs of Experience is Vaillant’s most recently published–and perhaps final–presentation of the Grant Study results, since the still-living Harvard subjects are now in their mid-90’s. The book is a full record of the Grant Study, integrating findings that are scattered across many earlier publications in journals and books (presenting results that sometimes shifted from decade to decade). Much more than numbers and stats, this book is an elegant and fascinating integration of history, culture, case description, commentary, and theory that keeps the reader thoroughly engrossed. Vaillant has a command of the overall data and trends for age ranges, is a masterful narrator of twists and turns in the complex lives of these men, and has the perspective to weave the whole together.

Some general findings from the data:

  • The most important contributor to joy and success in adult life is love, and the second greatest contributor is the individual’s involuntary coping styles.
  • What goes right in childhood predicts the future far better than what goes wrong. A warm childhood predicts joy and success in adult life. Memories of a happy childhood become a lifelong source of strength.
  • People who do well in old age do not necessarily do well in midlife, and vice versa.
  • The capacity for intimate relationships predicts flourishing in all aspects of men’s lives.
  • Marriages become happier after age 70.
  • Alcoholism was the most important factor in divorces.
  • As men approach old age, the quality of boyhood relationships with their mothers was associated with their effectiveness at work, their continuing to work until age 70, and their late-life income.
  • Men’s warm relationships with their fathers (but not with mothers) seem to enhance their capacity to play. Good father-son relationships predicted subjective life satisfaction at age 75.
  • After age 40, IQ does not count for much.
  • Men who live to be 100 years old are usually pretty active at age 95.
  • Our lives continue to evolve in our later years, and often they become more fulfilling than before.

When the study began in 1938, the views of psychologist William James were universally recognized; “human development at age 30 was set in plaster.” From Vaillant’s perspective of having observed lives unfold over the 75 year Grant Study, he confirms that adults can repeatedly change and grow beyond their 30’s–and even into their 80’s and 90’s: “Aging happy and well, instead of sad and sick, is at least under some personal control…with hard work, our relationships and our coping styles can be changed for the better….a successful old age may lie not so much in our stars and genes as in ourselves.”


“George Vaillant tells the story of the Grant Study men through age 91. This is, arguably, the most important study of the life course ever done. But it is, inarguably, the one most brimming with wisdom. If you are preparing for the last quarter of your life, this is a MUST read.”
–Martin Seligman, Author of Authentic Happiness and Flourish.

“Vaillant’s fascination with the human condition and his deep insights about development make him a great storyteller, adept at elegantly conveying the essence of humanity.”
–Laura L. Carstensen, Director, Stanford Center on Longevity.

“Vaillant concludes that personal development need never stop, no matter how old you are. At an advanced age, though, growth consists more in finding new hues and shades in one’s past than in conceiving plans for the future. As the Harvard Study shows with such poignancy, older men treat what lies behind them much as younger men treat what lies ahead. The future is what young men dream about; they ponder the extent to which it is predetermined or open; and they try to shape it. For old men, it is the past they dream about; it is the past whose inevitability or indeterminateness they attempt to measure; and it is the past they try to reshape. For the most regret-free men in the Harvard study, the past is the work of their future.”
–Andrew Stark, The Wall Street Journal

“George Vaillant’s book on the development and well-being of a longitudinal sample of men, now in their nineties and studied regularly since they were undergraduates at Harvard University, reads like a riveting detective tale… He has a thought-provoking story to tell about the lifelong significance of loving care… Brief life-story vignettes illustrate movingly how adult development and maturation is a lifelong process that strongly relates to the transformative power of receiving and giving love… [The book’s] well-evidenced wisdoms on the significance of nurturing relationships offer new multidisciplinary perspectives on the complex issue of nature versus nurture (much needed at a time when medical science and genetics once more dominate studies of human development) and on the lifelong costs of childhood emotional neglect.”
–E. Stina Lyon, Times Higher Education

“Triumphs of Experience elegantly summarizes the findings of this vast longitudinal study, unique in the annals of research… [The] book analyzes how the men fared over their late adulthood, and indeed their entire lives. In it, Vaillant masterfully chronicles how their life successes, or lack thereof, correlate with the nature of their childhoods, marriages, mental health, physical health, substance abuse, and attitudes. Extensive quantitative findings are interspersed with the detailed stories of individual study participants… Here Vaillant proves that his skills are literary as well as scientific. The case histories are engaging novelistic capsules that artfully bring the quantitative material to life… Many of its findings seem universal. If they could be boiled down to a single revelation, it would be that the secret to a happy life is relationships, relationships, relationships… The other overarching message of this book is that resilience counts… Vaillant is that rare thing: a psychiatrist more interested in mental flourishing than in mental illness. With Triumphs of Experience, he has turned the Harvard men’s disparate stories into a single narrative and created a field guide, both practical and profound, to how to lead a good life.”
–Charles Barber, Wilson Quarterly


george2George E. Vaillant, M.D. is a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and directed Harvard’s Study of Adult Development for almost thirty-five years. He received his medical degree from Harvard Medical School, did his psychiatric residency at the Massachusetts Mental Health Center, and later completed psychoanalytic training at the Boston Psychoanalytic Institute.

The American Psychiatric Association has honored George with its Foundations Fund Prize for Research in Psychiatry. He is also the recipient of the Strecker Award from the Pennsylvania Hospital, the Burlingame Award from the Institute for Living, and the Jellinek Award for research on alcoholism. In 1995, he received the research prize of the International Psychogeriatric Society. He has been a Fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, a Fellow of the American College of Psychiatrists and an invited speaker and consultant for seminars and workshops throughout the world.

Over the last 40 years, George has written numerous books, arranged below in order of first publication date (some have been updated, with different subtitles). His earliest, Adaptation to Life (1977), is a summary of Grant Study data up to subjects’ 47th year. It has become a classic text in the study of adult development and has been translated into several languages and republished over the years, most recently 1998. His Natural History of Alcoholism: Causes, Patterns, and Paths to Recovery was printed in 1983, with a “revisited” version appearing in 1995. Ego Mechanisms of Defense: A Guide for Clinicians and Researchers came out in 1992. The Wisdom of the Ego was issued in 1998, and 2003 brought Aging Well: Surprising Guideposts to a Happier Life from the Landmark Harvard Study of Adult Development, which is a summary of Grant Study data up to their 80th year. Spiritual Evolution: A Scientific Defense of Faith, first published in 2008 became Spiritual Evolution: How We Are Wired for Faith, Hope, and Love in the 2009 paperback version.

Not only is George considered to be one of the pioneers in the study of adult development, but his early focus on adaptation and coping strategies, growth, and well-being has made him a godfather of sorts to the field of Positive Psychology. George has lectured to Marty Seligman’s classes at the University of Pennsylvania on the power of positive emotions and how they contribute to better health and deeper connections. Seligman labels Ed Diener as the “engineer” of positive psychology in his efforts to do better replicable science, but he describes George as more focused on “the study of the soul. Everyone in positive psychology who seeks to explain the mysteries of the psyche wants deeper stuff. George is the poet of this movement. He makes us aware that we’re yearning for deeper stuff.”

One might wonder about factors in George’s own background that led him to his life work as a researcher and director of the Grant Study and to the multiple lifetime achievements noted above. He was born in 1934 in New York City to academic WASP parents who employed a nurse, a maid, and a cook during the Great Depression. His father was a “hotshot” archeologist who met his American-born mother, a banker’s daughter, in Mexico City. When George was a toddler, his father gave up working at Aztec digs and became a curator and then director of major metropolitan museums in the U.S. George remembers his father as “accomplished,” with little evidence of doubt or depression.

Yet after arising from a nap on a Sunday afternoon, his father went out into the yard, and shot himself by the pool. George’s mother discovered her husband’s body and whisked the children away to Arizona–none attended the memorial service. George was 10 years old. His sister described their father’s death as the “North Star” essential for determining her brother’s direction in life–he “wanted both to surpass his father, and to find out who his father was.”

Several years later, George’s family received his father’s elegantly-bound Harvard College 25th reunion book. George remembers being spellbound as he (at age 13) studied the photos and descriptions of men’s lives from their graduation to age 47–a twenty-five year perspective. He was fascinated with the changes he saw over time. As a teen he attended Philips Exeter Academy and went on to Harvard College, majoring in history and literature. His initial interest in the longitudinal process was further developed after medical school in his psychiatric residency, where he learned a literary approach to human lives, practiced deep reading of individual cases, and was intrigued by cases where he could track changes in severe mental disorders over time. He also trained in experimental science for two years in a Skinnerian laboratory, learning to read cumulative behavioral recordings.

So George was prepared with clinical practice, theory and research skills. He appreciated the discovery possible from examining data taken in real time within a longitudinal study, and was prepared to operate with few initial premises, constantly changing variables, and no overarching framework, as was the case when he the Grant Study. Most of all, he was already a natural storyteller, and the Grant Study was ready to share its findings. His narratives of the men’s lives, created from lengthy interviews he conducted, were expertly woven together with observations and theoretical interpretation.

In his later years, George has acknowledged how he has changed positively over a lifetime of studying the unfolding lives of men in the Grant study. “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. His research results and his personal accomplishments in life challenge long-held assumptions that adult growth ceases after retirement and that traumatic childhood events cannot be overcome. Even in our 80’s and 90’s mature adaptations (such as altruism, humor, anticipation, suppression, and sublimation) can continue to help us “turn dross into gold.”

George still operates out of the Grant Study’s office when he’s in Boston, and works the phones to track lives and deaths of the Grant Study men. He has been married to his present wife, Diane Hinghum, MD for 40 years, and they live in Orange, California. He has 5 adult children and one step-daughter.

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