[ This guest book review by Andrew Stark brings food for thought to the mind’s table. Skillful aging may refer to a collection of life skills. Whatever they are, they are probably worth developing. ]
Book Review: Advice on how to be happy from a study that has followed its subjects for seven decades. By ANDREW STARK
‘Two babies are born on the same day at the same hospital,” begins a joke by the deadpan comic Steven Wright. After gazing at each other across their cribs for a few hours, they get whisked away by their respective families, never to see each other again for the next 90 years. Then, by a strange twist of fate, they find themselves lying on their deathbeds next to each other in that same hospital. One of them turns to the other and asks: “So—what’d you think?”
In the late 1930s and early ’40s, 268 Harvard undergraduates—all men, as Harvard wasn’t coed at the time—were recruited for a long-term psychological study. Interviewing them regularly over the coming decades, Harvard scientists aimed to pinpoint the personal attributes that most reliably predict a successful life: that is, a life of superior achievement and income, good physical and mental health, and happy marital and parental relationships. The Harvard Grant Study, as it is called—its original funder was chain-store magnate William T. Grant—has churned out findings ever since.
TRIUMPHS OF EXPERIENCE By George E. Vaillant
Harvard, 457 pages, $27.95
Some are unsurprising. Alcoholism has a devastating effect on family and professional life.
If a lifetime of achievement is your goal, then it is better to have had an emotionally supportive childhood than a socially privileged upbringing.
Pragmatic and practical men are more likely to be politically conservative, while sensitive and intuitive men lean liberal.
Other findings upset conventional wisdom (Republican men are no less altruistic than Democratic men)
or proved to be just downright confounding: The longer-lived a man’s maternal grandfather, the more likely it is that he will enjoy mental health.
As time went on, the study’s focus underwent a subtle shift.
The project was initially dominated by the mid-century preoccupations of academic psychology: extroverted personality traits
(whether men with a “rich, exuberant social presence” make the best business leaders);
the degree of conformity to social norms (whether “normal” men are more likely to make their “proper place” in the world);
even physical attributes (whether broad-shouldered, narrow-hipped men make the best military leaders).
Gradually, though, the study acquired a more literary quality as the men’s lives and characters unfolded in deeply individual ways. And with this change came another: Instead of trying to predict the futures of the study’s subjects, attention turned to how well they were coming to terms with their lengthening pasts.
The surviving men are now all around 90.
For them, the question of the moment is “so—what’d you think?”
And the answer is surprisingly complex.
Harvard psychiatry professor George Vaillant tells us in “Triumphs of Experience”—the latest installment in the series of Grant Study books he has written since taking leadership of the project 40 years ago—that what a man thinks at a late stage of life much depends on how successfully he has come to terms with life’s regrets.
Look beneath the sometimes overwrought psychological framework that Mr. Vaillant layers over the men’s stories and you will see an array of strategies for making permanent peace with life’s missed opportunities.
One study participant had reproached himself for being insufficiently assertive during his years in the business world: He hadn’t, as he put it, tackled “the career problem properly.”
Yet in later life, looking back, his perspective altered. A high-powered position had certainly been a possibility for him. If, at the end of the day, he had failed to pursue it aggressively enough, he now feels gratified simply that he was once so highly regarded for his corporate talents.
Indeed, he feels relieved that he never had the chance to mess up in a top job. The career road not taken eventually became a source of late-life reverie: something worth savoring for its implied compliment instead of regretting for its missed chances.
Other men in “Triumphs of Experience” palliate regret with a different strategy. Instead of cherishing an exalted possibility because it never became a reality, they embrace the hidden gifts that regrets confer.
One study participant, a doctor, had lamented his youthful failures to develop satisfying personal relationships. Yet precisely because of his pent-up emotional neediness, he responded powerfully when, during a period of hospitalization in his 30s, he found himself the object of other people’s intense care for the first time.
Now urgently moved to connect with those around him, he gained a loving family and became “rich in relationships”—none of which, he came to realize, he would have ever had without the rough course that his earlier life had taken.
As Nietzsche said, in a sentiment Mr. Vaillant echoes, you must accept or regret the entire road you traveled. Everything is tied together through webs of causation; you can’t pick and choose.
Several study participants have endured long and less than ideal marriages. The way they tell their stories, as Mr. Vaillant recounts them, suggests a less Nietzschean regret-management strategy. Instead of viewing the past as an iron reality dictated by causal laws, a man might see the past as having been open to any number of paths though ultimately guided by his own particular nature.
Even if some Harvard men had married the one who got away instead of the one who didn’t, they might well have ended up in a nearly identical unhappy relationship.
One study member, for example, is at peace with his emotionally cramped marriage because he has come to understand that the deepest aspects of his own character—his own restraint and reserve—were the causes. “As he saw it,” Mr. Vaillant says, there “was nothing to be done about it; it was just the way he was”—and would have been no matter whom he married. No cause for regret, then, because the road not taken would have led right back to the road that was in fact taken.
For some of the men, though, the road they took seems to have fortuitously led them to the very road they didn’t.
One study participant, who had regretted not pursuing an artistic career, now sees that he was a kind of artist after all: an artist at mentoring young associates in his law firm.
Another came to view his vineyard as “his second girlfriend.” By reinterpreting his life, a man can conclude that he has indeed realized what once seemed like a lost possibility. Regret ebbs.
Mr. Vaillant concludes that personal development need never stop, no matter how old you are.
At an advanced age, though, growth consists more in finding new hues and shades in one’s past than in conceiving plans for the future. As the Harvard Study shows with such poignancy, older men treat what lies behind them much as younger men treat what lies ahead. The future is what young men dream about; they ponder the extent to which it is predetermined or open; and they try to shape it.
For old men, it is the past they dream about; it is the past whose inevitability or indeterminateness they attempt to measure; and it is the past they try to reshape. For the most regret-free men in the Harvard study, the past is the work of their future.
—Mr. Stark’s latest book is “Drawing the Line: Public and Private in America.”