Harvard study searches for a formula for a good life

Being able to form good relationships with others leads to successful agingIs there a formula for a happy life? For 72 years researchers at Harvard have been examining this question. They are following 268 men, who entered Harvard in the late 1930s, through war, career, marriage and divorce, parenthood and grandparenthood, and old age.

Called the Grant Study, it’s now one of the longest-running studies of mental and physical well-being in history.

The study’s remaining participants are now aged in their 80s. Over the years they have sat for interviews, returned questionnaires, had medical exams and psychological tests. “The files holding the data are as thick as unabridged dictionaries,” says journalist Joshua Wolf Shenk, in his article about the study What Makes Us Happy?, published in the Atlantic in June 2009.

For over 40 years Dr George Vaillant has been the chief investigator of the Grant Study. Journalist Richard Griffin noted Vaillant’s key findings for a happy and satisfying life in Griffin’s article Griffin: Ingredients for happiness in later life, published in wickedlocal.com in June 2009.

So what are Vaillant’s key findings for a happy life?

  • The ability to form good relationships with other people. “It is social aptitude,” Vaillant writes, “not intellectual brilliance or parental social class, that leads to successful aging.”
  • The ability to not abuse alcohol
  • Getting an education
  • Having a stable marriage
  • Not smoking
  • Exercising
  • Having a healthy body weight

Griffin believes the following six conclusions Vaillant made are worthy of highlighting for their insight into being happy in later life.

  • It’s not the bad things that happen to us that doom us, it’s the good people who happen to us at any age that help make old age enjoyable.
  • Healing relationships are helped by gratitude, forgiveness and taking people inside.
  • A good marriage at age 50 predicted positive aging at 80 but, surprisingly, low cholesterol levels at age 50 did not.
  • “Alcohol abuse — unrelated to unhappy childhood — consistently predicted unsuccessful aging partly because alcoholism damaged future social supports.”
  • Learning to have fun and create things after retirement, and learning to gain younger friends as we lose older ones, add more enjoyment to life than retirement income.
  • “Objectively good physical health was less important to successful aging than subjective good health. By this I mean it is all right to be ill as long as you do not feel sick.”

Wolf Shenk notes the following surprising study results.

  • Regular exercise in college predicted late-life mental health better than it did physical health.
  • Depression is a drain on physical health: of the men who were diagnosed with depression by age 50, more than 70 percent had died or were chronically ill by 63.
  • Generally, pessimists seemed to suffer physically in comparison with optimists, perhaps because they’re less likely to connect with others or care for themselves.

In an interview in the March 2008 newsletter to the Grant Study subjects, Vaillant 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.”

written by Nyomi Graef

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4 Responses to “Harvard study searches for a formula for a good life”

  1. Hilda says:

    With a glass of filtered water in one hand, a book in the other, flowering plants before me and good friends, I intend to zip ahead into old age with optimism and fun. I agree with the conclusions.

  2. Nyomi says:

    Thanks for your comments and for reading my blog, Hilda.

    Best wishes,

  3. We’re thinking of starting a blog for our business. I really love the colors and use of space on the template.

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