“The Power of Adaptation”

Historian Donald Cole reflects on his life, career, and experiences as a member of the Grant Study.

Donald Cole, 87, has been answering questions as part of the Harvard Study on Adult Development since he was a sophomore in the early 1940s. A historian who’s written books on 19th-century American politics, Cole served in World War II and spent most of his career teaching at Phillips Exeter Academy. His next book, Vindicating Andrew Jackson: The 1828 Election and the Rise of the Two-Party System, is due out in September. Joshua Wolf Shenk talked to Cole and his wife, Susan Wilson (known as Tootie), at their home in Exeter, New Hampshire. Excerpts from their conversation:

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Do you remember being selected for the Grant Study?

Yes, I do. I didn’t think it was a big deal at the time. I was going off to war soon. I think I was a sophomore at the time. I do remember talking to Dr. Heath. He told me about adaptation. He pointed out that a lot of people who are scholars, who you would think would never be able to turn a nut or bolt on a truck, found out they could do it pretty well in the war because they had to.

I got the impression that some people considered it an honor to be chosen. I didn’t think of it too much. I was chosen because I was healthy and doing pretty well in school. I remember the Rorschach tests. It was amusing.

The focus of the study shifted quite a lot over the years. Was that apparent to you?

I thought they were shifting with our age. The interest in psychology was apparent right from the start. I remember very interesting questions about the war. As the study went on, of course, they began to ask me about marriage, about life in the family, and growing old. I sort of wish now that I had kept a copy of my answers to all their questions. We got questions about once a year. It would have been fun to see how I answered but I never did. I just sent them back in.

Tootie: Quite a lot of the questions were easy to answer, but then they get down to questions about how you are feeling. That was harder. Especially for men who don’t usually talk about how they are feeling.

Do you think that being studied in this way has affected your life?

Yes, by asking me how I live with my wife, how I get along with my children, it has made me think more.

Did you read George Vaillant’s book about the study, “Adaptation to Life”?

I don’t think I read it from cover to cover, but I read sections of it. I have always thought adaptation was a wonderful thing. I preached it to my children when they were going through things. Isn’t his theme that human beings adapt much better than animals?

As I understand it, there are unconscious mechanisms, like humor, that we draw on in order to function in a world where there is a lot of pain and difficulty.

That’s very true. In World War II, you always joked about things that you weren’t really joking about, like before our first invasion, we were all saying “here today, Guam tomorrow.”

Who would you say has influenced you the most personally?

Probably my wife, Tootie. We’ve been married almost 60 years.

How did you meet?

I was 16 and he was in his navy whites taking a friend of mine out. Then two years later he came up and got a job at Exeter and my friend reminded him that my father was in the history department, but we didn’t start dating for another year.

What’s your secret to a happy marriage?

Pick your battles. Compromise. Humor.

Keeping one’s mouth shut! When you have four children and ten grandchildren, a few bad things are likely to happen. You can’t always say something.

Having participated in this epic study, what do you think you’ve learned about health and happiness?

I think George is right about the power of adaptation. I find that generally I can adapt. Though, mind you, I haven’t faced many horrible things. I do have congestive heart failure, a leaky valve. And the only reason I bring it up is that it has changed my life. I take a lot of pills every day. If I do too much I get tired.

Do you have a temperament that’s accustomed to just rolling with what life gives you?

Well, I think I’ve had an easy life. I knew I had to go to school, so I went to Phillips academy. It was in town. I knew I had to go to college, and my father said, Harvard’s the nearest college, you better go there. He didn’t say Harvard’s a great institution! So I went to Harvard, and then I went into the war. Of course, I had to go into the war. Then I came back to Harvard, and they had to take me back as a veteran. I was moving along, when one day the head of the history department mentioned to me that there was an opening at Exeter. I went up and they hired me. It’s been pretty easy.

Do you consider yourself an ambitious person?

Yes, I think so.

You certainly are ambitious about writing your history books.

Were there times when you wanted your books to sell more, to have wider acclaim?

I’m pretty realistic. I haven’t written great books. I’ve always had what I would call good reviews. The books have not sold terribly well. Though I do get a little jealous of people like David McCullough, who can write better than me, but haven’t spent that much time with history.

Comparing yourself to when you were 19, do you think you’ve changed?

Quite a bit. Well, politically for one. I don’t think that’s merely superficial. I changed from being a Republican to a Democrat. Also, when I was 19, I had no connection to anybody. I was old enough to go to college, I was free from my family’s restraints and I wasn’t married. I had no children or grandchildren. I am much less free now than I used to be. I can’t just do things of my own volition. I also have to think of other people. When you’re 19, you don’t really have to think too much about anybody else. It may be the most ideal time in a person’s life.

Was college an ideal time for you?

I look back on it nostalgically. I think I was really quite happy.

One of the findings of the Grant Study is that people tend to get happier as they get older.

I suppose a lot of people are very unhappy as teenagers, and I certainly see that in some of my grandchildren. They really are having a hard time adapting to life. So they blame people, their parents, or who knows. But I don’t remember anything like that. I never had to make any big decisions. My family really left me alone. My father had never gone beyond the tenth grade and he didn’t have great expectations. Though he probably influenced me in many ways I can’t enumerate.

What would you say have been the most painful moments of your life?

I can remember a few incidents that I regret very deeply. I was a student at Andover and I was with two or three other students. My father had a friend who was the janitor at Andover. I remember he was busy in the bathroom, washing the toilet out. And I made some joke about washing toilets. My father spoke to me about it and I’ve never forgotten that. It was one class talking to other, and yet my class was really no different than his. That could have been my father washing the toilet.

Are there difficult or painful experiences you feel you learned a great deal from?

I was dean of faculty at Phillips Exeter for five years. Most of the time I was simply a teacher or professor there. But as a dean of faculty, I worked on salaries, who got what apartments and education policy. I remember there was a man who didn’t like the way I had treated him, moving him from one apartment to another. Part of the job is dormitory life and supervision. Well, this man got very angry and he came to the dean’s house to complain to me. He really let me have it. That was painful, but I got over it because I was mad too.

Do you have any significant regrets about your life?

I would like to have been more successful as a historian. I appear in footnotes all over the map because of the work I’ve done but I’m not Arthur Schlesinger. I did have one year at UCLA, and I rather enjoyed that. They had a great history department. Robert Dallek, who wrote about Jack Kennedy and how ill he really was, was there.

Did you know that John F. Kennedy was a member of the Grant Study?

I knew that some Kennedy was, though I wasn’t sure which one. I knew that Ben Bradlee was a member. In fact, I think they used his picture. Though I never understood why it was so important to keep this thing secret.

I think it’s because studies now are governed by scientific review boards which are very careful and conservative. Because of some recent scandals, they will shut down a study if they see any kind of violation of ethics. So all public communications have to go through these review boards to make sure they’re kosher.

Do you think this study is going to be important? I mean, it isn’t wiping out some dread disease.

There have been a lot of significant findings from the study. I don’t know that any one of them is earth shattering. But maybe part of what makes it so interesting is that it’s ongoing and continues to be accessed by researchers as time goes on. It may be that the real significance will continue to unfold over time.

In psychology now there’s a big rage over what they call "happiness studies" or "positive psychology." The Grant Study is seen as a real landmark in that history because it was one of the first modern experiments to take on questions of health and well-being in a scientific way.

Does money matter, I wonder?

This is actually one of the big findings in positive psychology. Money makes a difference to a point, and after that there are very diminishing returns. People in abject poverty are less happy than people who are modestly well-off, but people who are modestly well-off are not less happy than very rich people.