In the June Atlantic Monthly, Joshua Wolf Shenk has a long, moving article about what may be the longitudinal study of all longitudinal studies – the Harvard Study of Adult Development (Grant Study), begun in 1937. Its creator Arlie Beck planned to track 268 “healthy, well-adjusted” men from their sophomore year at Harvard through careers, marriage, families, retirement and eventually death – and somehow, from this glut of longitudinal data, to glean the secrets of “successful living.”
But the portrait Shenk paints is as full of pathos as it is of success.
Delving into the case files, now kept by Beck’s successor George Vaillant and his colleague Robert Waldinger, Shenk finds lives that don’t fit a clean trajectory:
As the Grant Study men entered middle age – they spent their 40s in the 1960s – many achieved dramatic success. Four members of the sample ran for the U.S. Senate. One served in a presidential Cabinet, and one was president. There was a best-selling novelist (not, Vaillant has revealed, Norman Mailer, Harvard class of ’43). But hidden amid the shimmering successes were darker hues. As early as 1948, 20 members of the group displayed severe psychiatric difficulties. By age 50, almost a third of the men had at one time or another met Vaillant’s criteria for mental illness. Underneath the tweed jackets of those Harvard elites beat troubled hearts. Arlie Bock didn’t get it. “They were normal when I picked them,” he told Vaillant in the 1960s. “It must have been the psychiatrists that screwed them up.”
This is the kind of messy data that makes social science so challenging. Successful, apparently happy men plunge into substance abuse or mental illness for no clear reasons. Bock wanted to study “normal” men – he carefully selected his subjects for it – but what is “normal” anyway? For those of us who attended high-pressure undergraduate or graduate programs, it probably comes as no surprise at all that Bock’s young overachievers had emotional issues, or that subsequent career or life stressors brought those out. Not a few people would argue that depression is “normal” in such academic environments. Bock may have wanted to quantitate success, but there are many kinds of success – and high expectations can be their own kind of poison.
Shenk’s article is extremely well-written. His moving synopses of the subjects’ lives capture the contradictions and unspoken vulnerabilities in every human being. An apparently happy man devolves into obsession and depression. An unrepentant alcoholic is “clearly depressed. . .and yet full of joy and vitality.” Consider the well-respected, happily married doctor who, on his retirement at age 70, received a package of 100 thank-you letters from long-time patients:
Eight years later, Vaillant interviewed the man, who proudly pulled the box down from his shelf. “George, I don’t know what you’re going to make of this,” the man said, as he began to cry, “but I’ve never read it.” “It’s very hard,” Vaillant said, “for most of us to tolerate being loved.”
Shenk doesn’t exclude Vaillant himself from his ruminations on happiness. While Vaillant’s approach to all of this has been optimistic – constantly seeking new sources of funding to continue and expand the study, out of faith that it would reveal factors that predict healthy aging and happiness – Shenk paints a picture of a man every bit as complex as his subjects. Vailant is a professional success, apparently happy, but he has several failed marriages and troubled relationships with his children. Vaillant calls himself “a disconnected, narcissistic father,” yet when asked “What have you learned from the Grant Study men?” Vaillant answered, “That the only thing that really matters in life are your relationships to other people.” Vaillant symbolizes one of Shenk’s main points: that self-knowledge doesn’t necessarily bring either happiness or power. Recognizing and studying the dysfunctions in one’s own life doesn’t give one the power to fix them.
The Grant Study has outlived a number of movements, models, and fads in psychiatry and health, and been used to support various assertions – many of them Vaillant’s – about mental and physical health. But Shenk’s article doesn’t dwell on these conclusions. Instead, it ruminates freely on the limitations of empirical science, on the colorful aspects of personality and emotion that can’t be reduced to longitudinal data points. We can and do collect exhaustive data in our quest to understand what makes us happy. Our conclusions often seem counterintuitive, incomplete, or illogical. Identifying a problem rarely empowers us to fix it. Yet we shouldn’t stop trying, should we? I was reminded of a line from Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia: “It’s wanting to know that makes us matter.”
If you read one essay this weekend, take the time to read Joshua Wolf Shenk’s article. Seriously. Then, go do whatever it is you do to make yourself and those you love happy.