Sunday, March 19, 2017

Omni vincit amor

From Triumphs of Experience: The Men of the Harvard Grant Study by George E. Vaillant. The Grant Study is one of a handful of longitudinal studies which track individuals across a lifetime with measurements relating to physical health, mental health, psychology, circumstances and context, education, income, wealth, familial outcomes, etc. Such studies are enormously expensive, complex, and challenging to conduct but when done well, they are enlightening about trends, causations, and life outcomes.

The Grant Study has been following 268 healthy men from Harvard classes of 1939-44 across 78 years and three cohorts of study directors.

With such a small population, with study assumptions and objectives which changed over time and with the evolving social and epistemological environment over the course of the study, findings have to always be asterisked as indicative but requiring confirmation. That said, it is very interesting.

One pair of findings is the first hard data I have come across that supports one of my working hypotheses; to wit, that past a certain IQ level, life outcomes are more determined by behaviors and values than they are by incremental increases in IQ. The data findings are:
Those who scored highest on measurements of “warm relationships” earned an average of $141,000 a year more at their peak salaries (usually between ages 55 and 60).

No significant difference in maximum income earned by men with IQs in the 110–115 range and men with IQs higher than 150.
The warmth of childhood relationship with mothers matters long into adulthood:
Men who had “warm” childhood relationships with their mothers earned an average of $87,000 more a year than men whose mothers were uncaring.

Men who had poor childhood relationships with their mothers were much more likely to develop dementia when old.

Late in their professional lives, the men’s boyhood relationships with their mothers—but not with their fathers—were associated with effectiveness at work.

The warmth of childhood relationships with mothers had no significant bearing on "life satisfaction" at 75.
The warmth of childhood relationship with fathers correlated with:
Lower rates of adult anxiety.

Greater enjoyment of vacations.

Increased “life satisfaction” at age 75.
Vaillant has a number of conclusions. My summary of his words.
One is that positive mental health does exist, and to some degree can be understood independent of moral and cultural biases.

The second lesson is that once we leave the study of psychopathology for positive mental health, an understanding of adaptive coping is crucial.

The third lesson is that the most important influence by far on a flourishing life is love.

But - this is the fourth lesson - people can really change, and people really can grow.

A fifth lesson is that what goes right is more important than what goes wrong, and that it is the quality of a child's total experience, not any particular trauma or any particular relationship, that exerts the clearest influence on adult psychology.

A sixth lesson is that if you follow lives long enough, they change, and so do the factors that affect healthy adjustment. Our journeys through this world are filled with discontinuities. Nobody in the the Study was doomed at the outset, but nobody had it made, either.
There is burgeoning evidence that many of our behaviors are genetically scripted but subject to a vast array of exogenous circumstances and contexts. The Grant Study findings seem concordant with that branch of research.

All these men were at the peak of society in 1939, privileged if you will, but their intelligence and their behaviors were heavily influenced by context and circumstances. Not all golden lives ended happily and some among those marked as bleak at the beginning blossomed into beautiful outcomes.

The findings are a nice antidote to the Jacobin inclination that everything is deterministic and there is no free will.

Vaillant makes a particularly salient observation.
Throughout our lives we are shaped and enriched by the sustaining surround of our relationships. The seventy-five years and twenty million dollars expended on the Grant Study points, at least to me, to a straightforward five-word conclusion: "Happiness is love. Full Stop." Virgil, of course, needed only three words to say the same thing, and he said them a very long time ago - Omni vincit amor, love conquers all - but unfortunately he had no data to back them up.
There is no infallible algorithm of success. There are certainly factors which contribute but ultimately all success is a function of choices. Choices which both shape the context and circumstances and are, in turn, shaped by them.

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