The key lessons of the famous Grant Longitudinal study?
1) Its all about positive relationships
2) Resilience is required and rewarded
3) You always have the choice of rewriting your own script
4) Childhood experiences count
The study, a product of the period in which it was conceived, has its limitations. Its only subjects are white, privileged men. Still, many of its findings seem universal. If they could be boiled down to a single revelation, it would be that the secret to a happy life is relationships, relationships, relationships. The best predictors of adult success and well-being are a childhood in which one feels accepted and nurtured; an empathic coping style at ages 20 through 35; and warm adult relationships. Regarding finances, just one of Vaillant’s 10 measures of adult well-being, men who had good sibling relationships when young made an average of $51,000 per year more than those with poor sibling relationships or no siblings at all, and men who had warm mothers earned $87,000 more annually than those who did not (in 2009 dollars). Overall, reflecting their privilege, the Grant Men made a lot of money. The findings go on and on like that, and the message relentlessly emerges: The secret to life is good and enduring intimate relationships and friendships. Mental health, as Sigmund Freud and Erik Erikson indicated, is embodied by the capacity to love and to work.
The other overarching message of this book is that resilience counts. Men with the most mature defense mechanisms—defined as altruism, humor, sublimation (finding gratifying alternatives to frustration and anger), anticipation (being realistic about future challenges), and suppression (yes, “keeping a stiff upper lip”)—were three times more likely to flourish in later life. Furthermore, men with good defense mechanisms were able to alter their paths by developing the capacity for emotional warmth and connection to others despite difficult upbringings or individual setbacks.
Vaillant provides compelling evidence that many individuals—by no means all—can write (or rewrite) their own scripts, disproving F. Scott Fitzgerald’s maxim that there are no second acts in American lives. Other studies of quite different populations have arrived at similar conclusions. In Making Good, a 2001 study of hardcore criminal offenders, the criminologist Shadd Maruna documents that those who learned to desist from crime scored vastly higher on measures of self-agency (taking control of your life) and generativity (being able to respond positively to negative events) than those who continued their criminal careers.
Resilience plays out at a physiological level too, of course. Vaillant found that maintaining a healthy weight, not smoking, not drinking much, and controlling blood pressure before age 50 made all the difference in the health of the men at 80 and 90. But here, too, relationships seem to lay the groundwork. In 1978, Vaillant reviewed a subset of the men who had been healthy at age 40; they were now about 55 years old. Of those who had had the bleakest childhoods, 35 percent were dead or chronically ill, as compared to only 11 percent of those with the warmest childhoods.