Psychology June 2009

What Makes Us Happy?

Is there a formula—some mix of love, work, and psychological adaptation—for a good life? For 72 years, researchers at Harvard have been examining this question, following 268 men who entered college in the late 1930s through war, career, marriage and divorce, parenthood and grandparenthood, and old age. Here, for the first time, a journalist gains access to the archive of one of the most comprehensive longitudinal studies in history. Its contents, as much literature as science, offer profound insight into the human condition—and into the brilliant, complex mind of the study’s longtime director, George Vaillant.

Case No. 218, continued

On first glance, you are the study’s exemplar. In Dr. Vaillant’s “decathlon” of mental health—10 measures, taken at various points between ages 18 and 80, including personality stability at ages 21 and 29, and social supports at 70—you have ranked in the top 10 of the Grant Study men the entire way through, one of only three men to have done so.

What’s your secret? Is it your steely resolve? After a major accident in college, you returned to campus in a back brace, but you looked healthy. You had a kind of emotional steel, too. When you were 13, your mother ran off with your father’s best friend. And though your parents reunited two years later, a pall of disquiet hung over your three-room apartment when the social worker came for her visit. But you said your parents’ divorce was “just like in the movies,” and that you someday “would like to have some marital difficulties” of your own.

After the war—during which you worked on a major weapons system—and graduate school, you married, and your bond with your wife only deepened over time. Indeed, while your mother remains a haunting presence in your surveys—eventually diagnosed with manic depression, she was often hospitalized and received many courses of shock therapy—the warmth of your relationship with your wife and kids, and fond memories of your maternal grandfather, seemed to sustain you.

Yet your file shows a quiet, but persistent, questioning about a path not taken. As a sophomore in college, you emphasized how much money you wanted to make, but also wondered whether you’d be better off in medicine. After the war, you said you were “too tense & high strung” and had less interest in money than before. At 33, you said, “If I had to do it all over again I am positive I would have gone into medicine—but it’s a little late.” At 44, you sold your business and talked about teaching high school. You regretted that (according to a study staff member’s notes) you’d “made no real contribution to humanity.” At 74, you said again that if you could do it over again, you would go into medicine. In fact, you said, your father had urged you to do it, to avoid the Army. “That annoyed me,” you said, and so you went another way.

There is something unreachable in your file. “Probably I am fooling myself,” you wrote in 1987, at age 63, “but I don’t think I would want to change anything.” How can we know if you’re fooling yourself? How can even you know? According to Dr. Vaillant’s model of adaptations, the very way we deal with reality is by distorting it—and we do this unconsciously. When we start pulling at this thread, an awfully big spool of thoughts and questions begins to unravel onto the floor.

You never seemed to pull the thread. When the study asked you to indicate “some of the fundamental beliefs, concepts, philosophy of life or articles of faith which help carry you along or tide you over rough spots,” you wrote: “Hard to answer since I am really not too introspective. However, I have an overriding sense (or philosophy) that it’s all a big nothing—or ‘chasing after wind’ as it says in Ecclesiastes & therefore, at least up to the present, nothing has caused me too much grief.”

Case No. 47, continued

You are the study’s antihero, its jester, its subversive philosopher. From the first pages of your file, you practically explode with personality. In the social worker’s office, you laughed uproariously, slapping your arm against your chair. He “seems to be thoroughly delighted with the family idiosyncrasies,” Lewise Gregory, the original staff social worker, wrote. “He has a delightful, spontaneous sense of humor … [a] bubbling, effervescent quality.” “My family considers it a great joke that I am a ‘normal boy,’” you wrote. “‘Good God!’”

You ducked the war, as a conscientious objector. “I’ve answered a great many questions,” you wrote in your 1946 survey. “Now I’d like to ask you people a couple of questions. By what standards of reason are you calling people ‘adjusted’ these days? Happy? Contented? Hopeful? If people have adjusted to a society that seems hell-bent on destroying itself in the next couple of decades, just what does that prove about the people?”

You got married young, and did odd jobs—including a stint as a guinea pig in a hospital study on shipwreck survival. You said that you were fascinated by the “nuts” on the psychiatric ward, and you wondered whether you could escape the “WASP cocoon.” You worked in public relations and had three kids.

You said you wanted to be a writer, but that looked like a distant dream. You started drinking. In college, you had said you were the life of the party without alcohol. By 1948, you were drinking sherry. In 1951, you reported that you regularly took a few drinks. By 1964, you wrote, “Really tie one on about twice a week,” and you continued, “Well, I eat too much, smoke too much, drink too much liquor and coffee, get too little exercise, and I’ve got to do something about all these things. “On the other hand,” you wrote, “I’ve never been more productive, and I’m a little wary of rocking the boat right now by going on a clean living kick … I’m about as adjusted and effective as the average Fine Upstanding Neurotic can hope to be.”

After a divorce, and a move across the country, and a second marriage—you left her for a mistress who later left you—you came out of the closet. And you began to publish and write full-time. The Grant Study got some of your best work. When a questionnaire asked what ideas carried you through rough spots, you wrote, “It’s important to care and to try, even tho the effects of one’s caring and trying may be absurd, futile, or so woven into the future as to be indetectable.” Asked what effect the Grant Study had on you, you wrote, “Just one more little token that I am God’s Elect. And I really don’t need any such tokens, thank you.”

In the early 1970s, Dr. Vaillant came to see you in your small apartment, with an old couch, an old-fashioned typewriter, a sink full of dishes, and a Harvard-insignia chair in the corner. Ever the conscientious objector, you asked for his definition of “normality.” You said you loved The Sorrow and the Pity and that, in the movie, the sort of men the Grant Study prized fought on the side of the Nazis, “whereas the kooks and the homosexuals were all in the resistance.” You told Dr. Vaillant he should read Joseph Heller on the unrelieved tragedy of conventionally successful businessmen.

Your “mental status was paradoxical,” Dr. Vaillant wrote in his notes. You were clearly depressed, he observed, and yet full of joy and vitality. “He could have been a resistance leader,” Dr. Vaillant wrote. “He really did seem free about himself.” Intrigued, and puzzled, he sent you a portion of his manuscript-in-progress, wanting your thoughts. “The data’s fantastic,” you replied. “The methodology you are using is highly sophisticated. But the end judgments, the final assessments, seem simplistic.

“I mean, I can imagine some poor bastard who’s fulfilled all your criteria for successful adaptation to life, … upon retirement to some aged enclave near Tampa just staring out over the ocean waiting for the next attack of chest pain, and wondering what he’s missed all his life What’s the difference between a guy who at his final conscious moments before death has a nostalgic grin on his face as if to say, ‘Boy, I sure squeezed that lemon’ and the other man who fights for every last breath in an effort to turn back time to some nagging unfinished business?”

You went on to a very productive career, and became an important figure in the gay-rights movement. You softened toward your parents and children, and made peace with your ex-wife. You took long walks. And you kept drinking. After a day in your “collar,” you said, you let the dog loose.

“If you had your life to live over again,” the study asked you in 1981, “what problem, if any, would you have sought help for and to whom would you have gone?” “I’ve come to believe that ‘help’ is for the most part useless and destructive,” you answered. “Can you imagine Arlie Bock—God bless his soul—trying to help me work out my problems? … Or Clark Heath? The poor old boys would have headed for the hills! The ‘helping professions’ are in general camp-followers of the dominant culture, just like the clergy, and the psychiatrists. (I except Freud and Vaillant.)”

Around this time, Dr. Vaillant wrote about you: “The debate continues in my mind, whether he is going to be the exception and be able to break all the rules of mental health and alcoholism or whether the Greek fates will destroy him. Only time will tell.” Dr. Vaillant urged you to go to AA. You died at age 64, when you fell down the stairs of your apartment building. The autopsy found high levels of alcohol in your blood.

In Adaptation to Life, where you appeared as “Alan Poe,” Vaillant had admired your altruism and sublimation, and your eloquence, but worried you were “stalked by death, suicide and skid row.” You had written in retort, “Of course, the prognosis of death is a pretty sure bet … Hell, I could be dead by the time you get this letter. But if I am, let it be published … that—especially in the last five years—‘I sure squeezed that lemon!’”

Can the good life be accounted for with a set of rules? Can we even say who has a “good life” in any broad way? At times, Vaillant wears his lab coat and lays out his findings matter-of-factly. (“As a means of uncovering truth,” he wrote in Adaptation to Life, “the experimental method is superior to intuition.”) More often, he speaks from a literary and philosophical perspective. (In the same chapter, he wrote of the men, “Their lives were too human for science, too beautiful for numbers, too sad for diagnosis and too immortal for bound journals.) In one of my early conversations with him, he described the study files as hundreds of Brothers Karamazovs. Later, after taking a stab at answering several Big Questions I had asked him—Do people change? What does the study teach us about the good life?—he said to me, “Why don’t you tell me when you have time to come up to Boston and read one of these Russian novels?”

Indeed, the lives themselves—dramatic, pathetic, inspiring, exhausting—resonate on a frequency that no data set could tune to. The physical material—wispy sheets from carbon copies; ink from fountain pens—has a texture. You can hear the men’s voices, not only in their answers, but in their silences, as they stride through time both personal (masturbation reports give way to reports on children; career plans give way to retirement plans) and historical (did they vote for Dewey or Truman?; “What do you think about today’s student protesters, drug users, hippies, etc.?”). Secrets come out. One man did not acknowledge to himself until he reached his late 70s that he was gay. With this level of intimacy and depth, the lives do become worthy of Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky.

George Vaillant has not been just the principal reader of these novels. To a large extent, he is the author. He framed most of the questions; he conducted most of the interviews, which exist, not in recordings or transcripts, but only in his notes and interpretations. To explain the study, I needed to understand him, and how the themes from his life circled back to inform his work (and vice versa).

Strenuous defenses, I came to see, are no mere academic theme for Vaillant, who has molded his life story like so much clay. Consider the story of his father’s suicide and his own delight in going through the 25th-reunion book as a 13-year-old. When I asked Vaillant if the experience of paging through the book had been tinged with sadness, he said, “It was fascinating,” and went on to describe his awe and wonder at longitudinal studies. If he were observing his own case, Vaillant himself would probably call this “reaction formation”—responding to anxiety (pain at grasping a father’s violent departure) with an opposite tendency (joy at watching men, quite like him, develop through time).

But Vaillant’s sister, Joanna Settle, described their father’s death as the “North Star” essential for navigating her brother’s story. Henry Vaillant, George’s brother, agreed. “Since that time,” he said, “it was as if George wanted to do two things. He wanted to surpass our father, and he also wanted to find out who our father was.”

Considering the Harvard study through the lens of Vaillant’s adaptations, one wonders whether he looked to do both at once. Henry Vaillant says that their father was depressed and drinking heavily at the time of his suicide; afterward, he says, his mother propagated the “heroic myth” that their father—who had worked for the U.S. Embassy in wartime Peru and, at the time of his death, was set to join the Office of War Information—was a war casualty, undone by the pressure. Does this help explain George Vaillant’s deep interest in alcoholism, and in the psychological impact of combat?

“I sometimes wondered if another motivation for the study of these lives,” says Henry Vaillant, was “to learn how to live his own life right. As if by interviewing all these very successful people, he would get the knack. And of course in many ways, he has the knack.”

Indeed, Vaillant’s work is widely read and cited; he travels the world speaking to adoring audiences (“the leisure of the theoried class,” he calls it); his colleagues and students marvel at his capacity for empathy and connection. “George sees the best in people,” Martin Seligman says, “and he brings out the best in people.”

I saw this firsthand in Vaillant’s work with H’Sien Hayward, a second-year doctoral student in psychology at Harvard with a penetrating analytical mind and a big heart. Hayward has been paraplegic and bound to a wheelchair since a car accident at 16. She studies “post-traumatic growth,” the surprising beneficial changes that many people experience after pain or injury. She approached Vaillant on a lark—she never thought someone so famous would have time to advise her. She was shocked, she told me, to see that he insisted on talking about her ideas—and about the pains and hopes that gave rise to them. “The only way to keep it is to give it away,” he told her, articulating and enacting the essence of altruism.

The experience, Hayward said, was “transformative.” Frustrated by academic politics when she came to work with him, she told me, “I felt like a little bird with a broken wing, and he lifted me back up and mended me and made me fall back in love with behavioral science—using science to understand humans and all of their complexity.” Hayward came to consider Vaillant as “the embodiment of healthy aging—mentally, emotionally, and everything. He’s the person we’d all hope to end up to be.”

But Vaillant’s closest friends and family tell a very different story, of a man plagued by distance and strife in his relationships. “George is someone who holds things in,” says the psychiatrist James Barrett Jr., his oldest friend. “I don’t think he has many confidants. I would call George someone who has a problem with intimacy.”

Nowhere has Vaillant been more powerful and articulate than in describing the importance of intimacy and love. And nowhere has he struggled more deeply in his life. He had four children with his first wife, whom he divorced in 1970 after 15 years of marriage. He quickly got married again, to a young woman he had met while speaking in Australia. She came to the United States to help raise Vaillant’s children, including an autistic son. She and Vaillant also had a child of their own. During this time, his daughter Anne says, “he was jet-setting around the world and she was holding down the roof at home.”

But in the early 1990s, Vaillant left his second wife for a colleague at the study. After five tumultuous years, he and his third wife split, and he returned (“with his tail between his legs,” his brother says) to his second wife.

This protracted drama stirred up resentments on all sides—in the women involved, for obvious reasons, but among Vaillant’s children, too. “There was a civil war in the family,” Anne Vaillant says, “and everyone suffered.” And although she says there has been some “détente,” four of Vaillant’s five children have gone long periods without speaking to him. Vaillant himself describes his family as akin to King Lear’s, and himself as “a disconnected, narcissistic father.” It struck me that the kingdom has more than an ordinary share of woes.

Vaillant’s own work provides an uncanny description of his strengths and struggles. “On the bright side,” he has written, “reaction formation allows us to care for someone else when we wish to be cared for ourselves.” But in intimate relationships, he continued, the defense “rarely leads to happiness for either party.”

Yet Vaillant seems largely unaware of the way his defenses apply to his own case—even though he is aware of being unaware; he regularly told me that he would not be a good source of information about his own life, because of distortion. The Harvard data illustrate this phenomenon well. In 1946, for example, 34 percent of the Grant Study men who had served in World War II reported having come under enemy fire, and 25 percent said they had killed an enemy. In 1988, the first number climbed to 40 percent—and the second fell to about 14 percent. “As is well known,” Vaillant concluded, “with the passage of years, old wars become more adventurous and less dangerous.”

Distortions can clearly serve a protective function. In a test involving a set of pictures, older people tend to remember fewer distressing images (like snakes) and more pleasant ones (like Ferris wheels) than younger people. By giving a profound shape to aging, this tendency can make for a softer, rounder old age, but also a deluded one. One brilliant woman from the Stanford Terman study had been pre-med in college; when she was 30, a vocational survey identified medicine as the field most suitable for her. But her ambitions were squashed by gender bias and the Great Depression, and she ended up a housewife. How, the study staff asked her at age 78, had she managed the gap between her potential and her achievement? “I never knew I had any potential,” she answered. Had she ever thought of being a doctor? Never, she said.

At age 50, one Grant Study man declared, “God is dead and man is very much alive and has a wonderful future.” He had stopped going to church, he said, when he arrived at Harvard. But as a sophomore, he had reported going to mass four times a week. When Vaillant sent this—and several similar vignettes—to the man for his approval to publish them, the man wrote back, “George, you must have sent these to the wrong person.” Vaillant writes, “He could not believe that his college persona could have ever been him. Maturation makes liars of us all.”

When we discussed his marriages, Vaillant asked me to report simply that he had been married to his present wife for 40 years, which struck me not as a calculated deception but as a deeply worn habit of thought. Indeed, a few years ago, Anne told me, her father was looking over pictures of her wedding, and came across a picture of his third wife. He stood there puzzled for a time, and then finally asked Anne: “Who is that woman?” “I began to worry that he’d begun to have Alzheimer’s,” Anne says. “But I actually don’t think it’s an organic thing. I think it’s self-protection.” This is what Vaillant calls “repression,” and he’s been using it for a long time. “When I was younger, he would forget everything,” Anne says. “It was almost like he had his brain erased.”

Vaillant has passed along day-to-day management of the study to his colleague Robert Waldinger, a researcher and a psychoanalyst. As has always been necessary, Waldinger has kept this 72-year-old ship in the water by paying homage to the dominant model of health. Today, that means taking MRIs of the Grant and Glueck men, collecting DNA swabs—and asking for volunteers to donate their brains to the study. (Meanwhile, recent efficacy studies have restored some luster to psychoanalytic ideas, so the project still encompasses a range of approaches.)

Though Vaillant spends half the year in Australia, his wife’s native land, he is still deeply involved in the study, retains his title as co-director, and operates out of the study’s office when he’s in Boston. He also works the phones to keep track of the men’s lives—and their deaths. “I’m trying to reach [name deleted],” I overheard him say one day on the phone from the study’s office. He spoke loudly; I gathered the call was overseas. “Oh. I see,” he said after a pause. “Do you know of what cause?”

Recently, I asked Vaillant what happened when the men died. “I just got an e-mail this morning from one of the men’s sons,” he said, “that his father died this January. He would have been 89.” I asked him how it felt. He paused, and then said, “The answer to your question is not a pretty one—which is that when someone dies, I finally know what happened to them. And they go in a tidy place in the computer, and they are properly stuffed, and I’ve done my duty by them. Every now and then, there’s a sense of grief, and the sense of losing someone, but it’s usually pretty clinical. I’m usually callous with regard to death, from my father dying suddenly and unexpectedly.” He added, “I’m not a model of adult development.”

Vaillant’s confession reminded me of a poignant lesson from his work—that seeing a defense is easier than changing it. Only with patience and tenderness might a person surrender his barbed armor for a softer shield. Perhaps in this, I thought, lies the key to the good life—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. When I asked him if there was a death that had affected him, he mentioned Case No. 47—“Alan Poe”—an inspiring, tragic man, who left many lessons and many mysteries, who earnestly sought to “squeeze that lemon.”

Presented by

Joshua Wolf Shenk, the director of the Rose O’Neill Literary House at Washington College, is the author of Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness. He can be reached at

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