Harvard Has Figured Out the Secret to Happiness

After 75 years and 20 million dollars.

I’m at an age where my parents are declining and it scares me. My 86-year-old dad just got sent home from a rehab center where he relearned to walk. In the last decade, he’s gone through strokes, multiple cancer treatments, debilitating back pain and diabetes along with smaller ills. And my mom has given a decade of her life to being a caretaker.

By definition, I’m now only one generation away from their life being my life. Which has given me an interest in, for lack of a better word, the spirituality of aging. Is there any good news as we get closer to the end of life?

Among my favorite resources on this subject has been the Harvard Grant Study, a remarkable look at successful and unsuccessful aging. It began with the Harvard class of 1938 (which was all male) and continues to this day. The current head of the project, George Vaillant, is now in his 80s himself, even as the surviving subjects of the study are in their mid-90s. Vaillant releases a book once a decade and his latest, Triumphs of Experience: The Men of the Harvard Grant Study describes how, over the decades, the questions the study addresses have evolved. What makes for a successful life? What does it mean to "mature"? To be happy? What’s the best-case scenario for facing one’s own impending death? What makes for a good, lasting marriage?

Vaillant gives us some unexpected tidbits. Who could have guessed that men who’d had warm, affectionate mothers would take home on average $87,000 more per year than those whose mothers were cold?

And, happily, the study does offer encouragement around our fears about aging. Most of the 90-year-olds are still cognitively intact and they report being less depressed and happier than they were when they were younger: “As one great-grandmother put it, ‘I hate my waist, but I love my psyche!’”

Vaillant gives us lots of fascinating case studies, perhaps none more remarkable than that of a man who hadn’t thrived relationally or professionally until at age 35 he was hospitalized for 14 months with pulmonary tuberculosis. During his hospitalization, the man experienced a religious rebirth (he describes it as “a visit from Jesus”) that filled him at a deep level with the love that had been missing from his upbringing. After his release from the hospital, he began to thrive in aspects of his life where previously he’d only been impoverished. In describing what happened to him, he winningly quotes The Velveteen Rabbit: “Only love can make us real.”

In reflecting on this man’s story, Vaillant says that the entire 75-year-long study reveals “two pillars of happiness. One is love. The other is finding a way of coping with life that does not push love away.” And evidently there’s one central villain to happiness—alcoholism, which destroys connection and “can turn the most otherwise blessed golden boy into a trainwreck.” After 68 years of accumulating data, the study found that alcoholism was the most significant cause of failed marriages.

While love is never precisely defined, the study makes a convincing case that it’s what connects us and resources us for a successful life. So what are the coping mechanisms that don’t push love away? Among other insights, the study's authors offer a modified version of psychologist Erik Erikson’s developmental tasks of becoming an adult.

A brief summary: The first developmental stage is identity. This is where we “separate from social, economic, and ideological dependence” on our parents. For the study’s purposes, this happens when we live independently of our parents and are self-supporting.

The second stage is intimacy, which the study defines as “the capacity to live with another person in an emotionally attached, interdependent, and committed relationship for ten years or more.”

The third stage is career consolidation, which they define as holding a paying job and demonstrating commitment, contentment and competence at it.

The fourth stage is generativity, where we work to help guide the next generation to independence.

The fifth stage is guardianship. Generative people offer care to specific people, but guardians “take responsibility for the cultural values and riches from which we all benefit, offering their concern beyond specific individuals to their culture as a whole.”

The final stage is integrity, “the capacity to come to terms constructively with our own pasts and our futures in the face of inevitable death.” One study member wrote, “I think it is enormously important to the next generation that we be happy into old age. . . . that is our most valuable legacy—the conviction that life is and has been worthwhile right up to the limit.”

Having spent time on each of these stages, Vaillant ponders whether this kind of maturation is a moral imperative or just a nice thing to have if you can get it. At the very least, he notes that its absence is painful and that mastering these stages gave men many additional years of life. “The Generative died eight years later on average than those who never mastered Career Consolidation. The men who achieved Generativity were three times as likely to be enjoying their lives at eighty-five than men whose lives were focused on themselves.” In a winsome note, commenting on a parallel study focused on women, he adds further incentive by saying, “The Terman women who failed to master Generativity were only one third as likely to be orgasmic as those who had.”

So in this world, getting a life that can be rich until the end requires frequent reevaluation and experimentation. Mastering one task only makes possible a subsequent task that also has to be mastered to keep whatever happiness we have. I think of a friend who, to the outside eye, has mastered only the first task—identity—and does indeed seem stunted and loveless. Or of other friends who’ve had long-lasting marriages and tremendous career success, but never made it to generativity or guardianship and have seemed, even to themselves, to have been in a sort of suspended “no-growth zone” for decades. Or of another friend in very similar circumstances who, when I invited her into generativity with a waiting and eager group of young people looking to learn from her, responded “I have nothing to teach” and declined. She’d grown up in a loveless home and, having gotten out and made good money and developed a strong marriage, now wanted to hunker down and conserve her gains. Could she represent all of us who stall out in these tasks—doomed to be constrained by the deficits of our youth and the low levels inside our internal vat of love?

It seems to me that my own life has given me opportunities to address all of these tasks at various points, but some have gotten more attention than others at any given time, which can make them seem aspirational but hard to hold onto. And I find myself wanting my kids to master the first three tasks (identity, intimacy and career consolidation), which feel like “the basics”—while generativity and guardianship (much less integrity) seem like terrific but secondary frills. But this study would suggest I’m selling my kids short.

In the world Vaillant describes, I don’t know what to do with my huge ambitions for what I want to see happen in and through my life by the time I’m my dad’s age, should I be so lucky. On the one hand, Vaillant and his crew do talk about professional success—earning power and being included in Who’s Who both get their attention. But these seem secondary to mastering the developmental tasks that will empower me not to push love away (as if pushing love away is the default human condition). I can take heart that my parents have impressively mastered some of these life tasks. They’re not far from their 60th anniversary, so take that, Intimacy Task!

In five words, can Vaillant summarize what they’ve learned in this vast project? He’s up to the task: “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.’”

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