Harvard study uncovers keys to healthy, happy life

Printed from: https://newbostonpost.com/2016/03/07/harvard-study-uncovers-keys-to-healthy-happy-life/

BROOKLINE – Harvard University’s Grant Study reveals underlying reasons for being healthy and happy in the later years of life, according to Dr. Robert Waldinger, the decades-long research project’s current director.

What indicators can help predict good health and happiness in a person’s later years only recently became a focus for researchers conducting the study. The project started as a way to identify prospective military officers among Harvard College men around the beginning of World War II.

“The clearest message that we get from this 75-year study is this: Good relationships keep us happier and healthier,” Waldinger said in a recent TED Talk in Brookline. Yet the study also documented notable exceptions.

The Grant study, named for funder William T. Grant, has followed 268 men who were Harvard sophomores in 1938 to 1942 in the most extensive longitudinal research project of its kind. Participants included John F. Kennedy, but his records are sealed until 2040. The men have been tracked, interviewed and assessed over the course of their lives through physical examinations, visits to childhood homes and more.

What Waldinger and his predecessor, Dr. George Valliant, found can apply to any life – not just those of Harvard men from the Greatest Generation. Much of it revolves around relations with other people, Waldinger said. Money, fame and continuous hard work aren’t as important as many people think, he said, echoing Valliant’s assessment.

“Our relationships with other people matter, and matter more than anything else in the world,” Valliant wrote in a July 2009 essay published by Positive Psychology News.

To measure late-life health and happiness, Valliant created what he called a “decathlon” of well-being – 10 events that must occur in a man’s life to qualify him for what Valliant called a “rewarding late life.” These events range from work-related – does the man have high occupational prestige? – to personal relations – does he enjoy close father-child relationships? – to the physical – did he quit smoking early?

The men who met these conditions enjoyed close relationships late in life and had developed mature coping mechanisms, such as altruistic behavior, patience or stoicism.

“By far the most important influence on a flourishing life is love,” Valiant wrote in an August 2013 essay published by the University of California, Berkeley. “Not early love exclusively, and not necessarily romantic love. But love early in life facilitates not only love later on, but also the other trappings of success, such as high income and prestige.”

One of the most inspiring stories from the Grant study concerns Godfrey Camille, a pseudonym Valliant used.

Camille came from an “upper class” family, but a child psychologist called his home life “one of the bleakest” among those in the study. Coming from a loveless childhood, Camille coped by complaining about his health and frequently going to the school infirmary, though doctors found nothing wrong with him.

Not long after graduating from medical school, Camille attempted suicide. By all of the study’s measures, Camille was not expected to flourish into old age.

But at 35 Camille had a life-changing experience. He became ill and was hospitalized for 14 months. The care of hospital workers had a profound effect, and Camille said in a survey: “Someone with a capital ‘S’ cared about me.”

After his convalescence, Camille got married, had two children and built a successful career as a doctor, finally able to altruistically give to others the love and care he had missed as a child.

Valliant recalled asking Camille (then in his 70s) what he had learned from his children.

“I learned love!” the subject replied. Valliant later had an opportunity to interview Camille’s daughter, observing afterward that, “this woman’s love for her father remains the most stunning that I have encountered.”

The study also features men who seem to defy classification. One, called Alan Poe, excelled in none of Valliant’s measurements, yet still “flourished,” Valliant said in his book, Adaptation to Life.

At Harvard, Poe expressed a “delightful,” sometimes absurd, sense of humor, Valliant said. Poe became a conscientious objector to the war and in 1946, responded to a survey by asking:

“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?”

Poe went on to marry and had three children by the time he and his wife divorced. He worked odd jobs, and married and divorced two more times. Eventually, Poe declared his homosexuality and devoted himself to writing. The Atlantic and New Yorker magazines published his poetry.

But Poe started drinking and smoking later in life. Both behaviors ran counter to Valliant’s decathlon for a healthy, happy old age, and based on Valliant’s criteria for mental health, “Poe fell in the bottom fifth” of study participants.

Valliant recalled sending Poe a manuscript on his research for comment. Poe replied praising the data and methodology but said “the end judgments, the final assessments, seem simplistic.”

Imagining a man who had “fulfilled all your criteria for successful adaptation to life,” Poe speculated on that subject “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?”

Poe died at 63, after falling down some stairs. He had a high blood-alcohol level at the time.

In a letter to Valliant not long before his death, Poe reflected on the doctor’s 1975 comments about him following an interview: “I felt that Poe was stalked by death, suicide and skid row.”

Poe pointed out that in the five years that followed, three of his novels were published and two of his plays were performed in off-Broadway theaters. “The prognosis of death is a pretty sure bet. I am 61 years old. Hell, I could be dead by the time you get this letter. But if I am,” he added, “especially in the last five years – I sure squeezed that lemon!”