Triumphs of Experience: The Men of the Harvard Grant Study


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Review

“Of the 31 men in the study incapable of establishing intimate bonds, only four are still alive. Of those who were better at forming relationships, more than a third are living. It’s not that the men who flourished had perfect childhoods. Rather, as Vaillant puts it, ‘What goes right is more important than what goes wrong.’ The positive effect of one loving relative, mentor or friend can overwhelm the negative effects of the bad things that happen. In case after case, the magic formula is capacity for intimacy combined with persistence, discipline, order and dependability. The men who could be affectionate about people and organized about things had very enjoyable lives. But a childhood does not totally resolve a life. The wonderful thing about the Grant Study is that, as Vaillant emphasizes, it has followed its subjects for nine decades. The big finding is that you’ll teach an old dog new tricks. The men kept changing right through, even in their 80s and 90s.”David Brooks, New York Times

“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 in the back of 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, Wall Street Journal

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 name of the game 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

“The factor Vaillant returns to most insistently is the powerful correlation between the warmth of your relationships and your health and happiness in old age.”Scott Stossel, The Atlantic

“In Triumphs of Experience, Vaillant elegantly and persuasively brings us an answer to the question that launched a thousand snake-oil salesmen: what makes for a successful and happy life? …[An] engaging work. There are regrettably few studies of this magnitude and even fewer accounts that so ably synthesize the broader insights with the moving parts.”Christopher Croke, The Australian

“To avid consumers of modern happiness literature, some of Vaillant’s conclusions will seem shopworn (‘Happiness is love. Full stop.’), whilst other results of the Grant Study appear to confirm what social science has long posited―that a warm and stable childhood environment is a crucial ingredient of success; or that alcoholism is a strong predictor of divorce. But what’s unique about the Grant Study is the freedom it gives Vaillant to look past quick diagnosis, to focus on how patterns of growth can resolve patterns of wellbeing. Life is long, Vaillant seems to be saying, and lots of shit happens. What is true in one stage of a man’s life is not true in another. Previously divorced men are capable of long and loving marriages. There is a time to monitor cholesterol (before age 50) and a time to ignore it. Self-starting, as a character trait, is relatively unimportant to flourishing early in life but very important at the end of it. Socially anxious men struggle for decades in emotional isolation and then mature past it―relatively speaking. Triumphs of Experience is not only a history of how the Grant men adapted (or not) to life over 70-plus years, but of how author and science grew up alongside them. Yet what unifies Triumphs is the same question posed originally by Bock, the study’s founder: What factors meaningfully and reliably predict the good life? Vaillant’s mission is to uncover the ‘antecedents of flourishing.’”Dan Slater, Daily Beast

“Offers broadly applicable evidence about how everything from early maturity to grandparents’ longevity is likely to impact flourishing all the way through life… It is hard to overstate the wealth of the data provided in Triumphs of Experience or the ambition of the project, composed of survey responses, health records, and interviews. This archive of human life is poised to answer questions shorter studies can barely hint at… Vaillant offers striking conclusions about a range of factors affecting human flourishing.”Adam Plunkett, New Republic online

“Reading like a storybook, the case histories of the individuals provide fascinating insights about how the subjects tackled challenges or succumbed to setbacks. Vaillant superbly explains how these lifelong experiences sculpted these men’s final years. Readers can learn more about themselves and what they may expect from life by reading this revelatory and absorbing book.”Aron Row, San Francisco Book Review

“George Vaillant’s book on the development and well-being of a longitudinal sample of men, now in their nineties and studied steadily 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

“This fascinating book of ‘numbers’ and ‘pictures’ is the final summary volume of a longitudinal psychosocial study focused on the optimum health of 268 males from Harvard College classes… This book is well worth reading for the discoveries contained in its pages; it has the potential to advance knowledge about adult development.”J. Clawson, Choice

About the Author

George E. Vaillant is Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

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