The Markers Of A Good Life

Charles Barber reviews psychiatrist George Vaillant’s Triumphs of Experience: The Men of the Harvard Grant Study, observations from a 70-year longitudinal study of 268 Harvard students:

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.