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What Is Really Important for Achieving Happiness? An Exhaustive Harvard Study Responds


For 75 years, the Grant Study has scrutinized people to understand what it is that really generates happiness and satisfaction in old age.

For 75 years, one of the most extensive and most complete studies of the development of ‘normal’ adults has been examining how we can live to the full and be happy. But this is not just another study like the hundreds that appear every month. The project, which began in 1938, has followed 268 Harvard students to measure an incredible range of psychological, anthropological, and physical features; from personality types and IQ to drinking habits and family relationships to the length that each man’s scrotum hangs.

The responses that have emerged – and continue to do so – are as surprising as they are obvious. Having a difficult childhood, for example, has a huge impact on early adulthood, but its effects fade as the years go by. And education – specifically going to university – is more relevant than money or social status when it comes to living a successful life.

George Vaillant, who headed the study for more than three decades, is more like a biographer who is trying to make sense of a whole life than a clinical professional focused on trying to solve a problem in a specific moment. His central question is not how many or how few problems these men face, but how they respond to those problems. Today, those subjects of the study who are still alive are around 80 years of age.

The study also revealed that alcohol has some of the most disastrous effects on marriage, family finances, and personal health. It also found that, above a certain level, intelligence does not matter. What matters is the kindness and generosity of the people with whom we form relationships. Political ideology does not have any effect on the general satisfaction of our lives. However, more conservative men’s sex lives ended at an average of 68 years of age, while more liberal men had sexual relations into their eighties. The factor that Vaillant returns to again and again is the powerful correlation between the quality of relationships and our health and happiness in old age. One of his main findings, as well as emphasizing what we all already knew, would have pleased Freud: the quality of our relationship with our mothers is crucial throughout adult life. Specifically:

-Men who had warm relationships with their mothers in their childhood earned an average $87,000 more per year than those who were more distanced from their mothers.

-Men who had poor relationships with their mothers in their childhood tended to develop dementia in old age.

-Well into their professional careers, the relationships with their mothers during their youth – but not with their fathers – were associated with performance at work.

On the other hand, warm relationships with their fathers were directly related to a lower incidence of anxiety, more enjoyment during vacation and “life satisfaction” at the age of 75 (while the relationship with their mothers had no effect on life satisfaction at the age of 75).

But the heart of the study is, categorically, happiness. George Vaillant drew a map of the skies of general health and satisfaction of a full life so that we can study it – and recognize ourselves in it – in perspective. His conclusion, as we see in this interview, is that happiness is not “conforming, keeping up with the Joneses. It is about playing and working, and loving. And loving is probably the most important. Happiness is love.”

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