In the fall of 2008, journalist and author, Joshua Wolf Shenk was given the rare privilege to spend a month reading the results of a 70 year longitudinal study of mental and physical well-being known as the “Grant Study.” Prior to this, the files had been kept locked up to all but a few researchers. The subjects of this study were 268 male students at Harvard. They had been sophomores in 1937 when the study began, so in 2009, those that were still alive, were in their late 80s. The chief curator for the study, the psychiatrist George Vaillant, kept the work going through the years by raising funds, creating the surveys to which the men responded, and publishing books on the findings. Shenk’s article, “What Makes Us Happy?,” was published in The Atlantic  on June 1, 2009 and can be seen in its online version here. Shenk admits that it is difficult to separate the interpretation of results from the persona of George Vaillant whose own psychological and physical development occurred while he watched 268 lives unfold.

By the time the Grant Study men had entered retirement, Vaillant, who had then been following them for a quarter century, had identified seven major factors that predict healthy aging, both physically and psychologically. Employing mature adaptations was one. The others were education, stable marriage, not smoking, not abusing alcohol, some exercise, and healthy weight. Of the 106 Harvard men who had five or six of these factors in their favor at age 50, half ended up at 80 as what Vaillant called “happy-well” and only 7.5 percent as “sad-sick.” Meanwhile, of the men who had three or fewer of the health factors at age 50, none ended up “happy-well” at 80. Even if they had been in adequate physical shape at 50, the men who had three or fewer protective factors were three times as likely to be dead at 80 as those with four or more factors.”1

Vaillant and Shenk say that some factors don’t matter very much. For example, cholesterol levels at age 50, and social ease at 20-something. The influence of both diminish over time and have little affect by age 70.  “If you follow lives long enough, the risk factors for healthy life adjustment change. There is an age to watch your cholesterol and an age to ignore it.”2 “Regular exercise in college predicted late-life mental health better than it did physical health. . . . pessimists seemed to suffer physically in comparison with optimists, perhaps because they’re less likely to connect with others or care for themselves.”3

Vaillant asserts that “Alcoholism is a disorder of great destructive power”4 and abuse of alcohol was the most likely predictor of unhappiness. We didn’t need a longitudinal study of Harvard men to tell us this; everyone has one or two friends or relatives pointing toward this truth.

Of course, happiness scientists have come up with all kinds of straightforward, and actionable, findings: that money does little to make us happier once our basic needs are met; that marriage and faith lead to happiness (or it could be that happy people are more likely to be married and spiritual) . . . . “You can say a lot of general things from these data that you could never say before . . . . But many of them are relatively shallow. People who go to church report more joy. But if you ask why, we don’t know.”5

Vaillant admitted to Shenk that even with the benefit of the study, he is not a model of adult development. Perhaps the key to a good life is

not rules to follow, nor problems to avoid, but an engaged humility, an earnest acceptance of life’s pains and promises. In his efforts to manifest this spirit, George Vaillant is, if not a model, then certainly a practiced guide. For all his love of science and its conclusions, he returns to stories and their questions.6

Happiness is notoriously hard to quantify, and “a good life” is a subjective term. We should not be surprised that even George Vaillant cannot be the source for a Facebook status or inspirational poster that will forever state the secret of the good life.

More recently, another article entitled, “What Makes Us Happy, Revisited: A new look at the famous Harvard study of what makes people thrive” written by Scott Stossel was published in The Atlantic (April 24, 2013 and available here [you can also see a similar article in the Huffington Post; many people have been linking to this article on Facebook pages]). This latest article, a quick sound-bite suitable for sharing on social media, does not tell the stories of any of the men in the study, and instead offers short quotes from Vaillant and Shenk outside of the broader context of their wrestle with the reams of data. It attempts to sum up the 70 year study in five memorable words: “Happiness is love. Full stop.”7

But, is that a fair summary? Even if we could determine action points from these words, would this explain the majority of scenarios? A few of the stories from the Grant Study would suggest  more complex systems.

Most of the subjects of the Grant Study remain anonymous. A few have willingly identified themselves and it is now known that John F. Kennedy was a Grant Study man.8

Kennedy—the heir to ruthless, ambitious privilege; the philanderer of “Camelot”; the paragon of casual wit and physical vigor who, backstage, suffered from debilitating illness—is no one’s idea of “normal.” And that’s the point. The study began in the spirit of laying lives out on a microscope slide. But it turned out that the lives were too big, too weird, too full of subtleties and contradictions to fit any easy conception of “successful living.” [They] had gone looking for binary conclusions—yeses and nos, dos and don’ts. But the enduring lessons would be paradoxical, not only on the substance of the men’s lives . . . but also with respect to method: if it was to come to life, this cleaver-sharp science project would need the rounding influence of storytelling.9

In our social media age, we often look for binary conclusions; or at least a clever line that we can use as a status update on Facebook. Perhaps we should be looking at the stories of people’s lives rather than snippets of data. Perhaps we need a biographical approach. What story does each life tell? What story will each of our lives tell? To whom will our story point? Will it be an example of one who lived a “happy life,” or a story of sacrifice and love for others?


Works cited:
Gregoire, Carolyn. “The 75 Year Study That Found The Secrets To A Fulfilling Life.” The Huffington Post. August 11, 2013. (accessed July 4, 2014).
Shenk, Joshua Wolf. “What Makes Us Happy?” The Atlantic. June 1, 2009. (accessed July 4, 2014).
Stossell, Scott. “What Makes Us Happy Revisited: A new look at the famous Harvard study of what makes people thrive.” The Atlantic. April 24, 2013. (accessed July 4, 2014).

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