Harvard study follows ‘the pursuit of happiness’ – key factors

The Grant Study, which began in 1938, is one of the longest-running longitudinal studies of human development in history.

Following 268 male undergraduates at Harvard University, its goal was to determine the factors at play for one of life’s biggest questions: What makes for happiness?

The project measured a wide range of psychological, social, cultural and physical traits, and followed the men well into their 90s.

George Vaillant, who directed the study for over 30 years, recently published Triumphs of Experience, the remarkable summary of the results.

The findings

Amongst one of the significant findings, was the fact that: “Alcoholism is a disorder of great destructive power.”

Alcoholism was the number cause of divorce, strongly linked to neurosis and depression; and – together with cigarette smoking – was the single largest contributor to their early death.

The study also debunked some widely excepted “truths” – including that people do not change much over time.

Whilst it is not a case of the opposite being true; the study found men who were disillusioned with their careers or relationships in their 40s and 50s were often able to change their life, and find love and happiness during their 60s, 70s and 80s.

In addition, the secret for growing old with grace and health was not attributed to genetics, but “habits formed prior to age 50.”

Yet the factor Vaillant returns to time and time again is the strong link between happiness and fulfilling personal relationships.

“While the study confirms that recovery from a lousy childhood is possible, memories of a happy childhood are a lifelong source of strength,” it states.

For example, the 58 males who notched the highest result on “warm relationships” earned around USD 141,000 more a year during their career peak than the 31 who scored lowest.

The findings probed further into the link between relationships with parents during childhood, specifically that:

  • Men were more likely to develop dementia if they has poor childhood relationships with their mother.
  • The men’s boyhood relationships with their mothers (yet not with their fathers), were a key factor associated to their better effectiveness at work.
  • This led to findings men who enjoyed “warm” relationships with their mothers during childhood earned USD 87,000 more a year an average than those whose mothers were uncaring.
  • Those who experienced warm childhood relations with their fathers experienced less chance of adult anxiety, greater satisfaction during holidays, and increased, general “life satisfaction” in later life.

In his own words, Vaillant offers a key takeaway: “The seventy-five years and twenty million dollars expended on the Grant Study points … to a straightforward five-word conclusion: ‘Happiness is love. Full stop.’ ”

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