What makes a good life?

3 Lessons on Life, Love, and Decision Making from the Harvard Grant Study

More than 80 years ago, researchers at Harvard set out to answer the following question: What makes a good life? They enlisted hundreds of participants who agreed to a wide range of interviews, questionnaires, physicals, and extensive physiological measurements – and, in spite of many obstacles, kept collecting the data year after year, decade after decade. They started with ambitious goals – to “help ease the disharmony of the world at large” – as the study’s founder put it to The Harvard Crimson newspaper in 1942, and ended up collecting a treasure trove of data.

So after 80 years of collecting and analyzing the data, what lessons can be gleaned from these men’s lives? Can the lessons be used to ease disharmony in the world, or at least help us all make better decisions?

by Michael Miller


What Makes a Good Life?

The Grant Study, also known as the Harvard Study of Adult Development, is one of the most comprehensive longitudinal studies ever done. Researchers wanted to answer a seemingly simple question: what makes a good life? But that simple question is, of course, remarkably complex. To answer it, they have followed hundreds of men for decades – through college graduation, marriage, war, parenthood, life crises, and old age – and collected a wide range of data about the men’s physical and mental wellbeing.

Dr. Arlie Bock, a Harvard physician, began the project in 1938 with his patron, department store magnate W.T. Grant. It began with 268 men who were sophomores at Harvard between 1939 and 1944. Bock wanted to get away from medicine’s tendency to focus on the small, specialized and sickly. He wanted to study successful and normal men, to see what makes a good life and maybe even decipher a general recipe for success.

The men agreed to a wide range of interviews, questionnaires, physicals, and extensive physiological measurements, which have formed the basis of the data collected.


But unfortunately, like most longitudinal studies, enthusiasm waned after the initial burst of excitement. Grant stopped funding the study after a decade, and by the mid-1950s, the study was on life support. A group of researchers led by Charles McArthur kept the thread alive, at least sending questionnaires to the participants every couple years. Funding came from a variety of groups, ranging from the Rockefeller Foundation to the cigarette company Philip Morris.

Then two things happened that changed the study’s fortunes. First, as the men reached middle age in the 1960s, many achieved dramatic success. Four ran for U.S. Senate, one became president, another a best-selling author. And then in 1967, a young psychiatrist named George Vaillant discovered the Harvard study, and fell in love with the possibilities it presented. In Vaillant, this amazing dataset had found its chief supporter and storyteller – and the project picked back up full force. Researchers brought in a second cohort of 456 disadvantaged inner-city youths, from a project known as “The Glueck Study,” who grew up in Boston neighborhoods in the early 1940s. This added some valuable and much needed diversity to the study.

The study’s participants found remarkable personal and professional success, tragedy and heartbreak, and everything in between. Comparing the data to the outcomes, are there any clear lessons that could help us all live a good life, and make optimal decisions?

Here are 3 key takeaways:

3 Lessons from the Harvard Grant Study


1. Success is seen over the arc of someone’s life, so think long-term

Joshua Shenk, a journalist from The Atlantic and one of the first non-researchers to look at the archives, said that “a glimpse of any one moment in a life can be deeply misleading.” (You can read Joshua Shenk’s article on the Grant Study archives, What Makes Us Happy?, here.)

Some men started off happy and well adjusted, only to end up dying lonely and sad. And others started off with pretty bleak prospects for success, and ended up living long, satisfying lives. So to answer the question of what makes a good life, it’s essential to look at the whole picture.

Consider the lives of the following men as extraordinary examples:

A man named John Hines seemed to shine throughout his childhood and his years at Harvard. The Grant Study staff noted the following: “Perhaps more than any other boy who has been in the Grant Study, the following participant exemplifies the qualities of a superior personality: stability, intelligence, good judgment, health, high purpose, and ideals.” But then his life took a seemingly inexplicable turn for the worse. He married, took a job overseas, and started smoking and drinking. He had an affair with a girl his therapist considered psychotic, and died suddenly of a disease in his 30s. In 1951 – at 31 – he wrote, “I think the most important element that has emerged in my own psychic picture is a fuller realization of my own hostilities. In early years I used to pride myself on not having any. This was probably because they were too deeply buried and I unwilling and afraid to face them.”

A man named Godfrey Minot Camille, on the other hand, went into the Grant Study with fairly bleak prospects for life satisfaction: He had the lowest rating for future stability of all the subjects and he had previously attempted suicide. He had grown up in a terrible environment, eating meals alone until the age of 6, and the pain and desolation haunted him for years. But at 35, he had what he called a spiritual awakening, became a psychiatrist, and turned his pain into a tool for serving others. At the end of his life, he was one of the happiest men in the study.

These are only a few examples of many that show how “a glimpse of any one moment in a life can be deeply misleading.” Success is seen from a wide perspective of an entire life, not from any particular moment or achievement.

But what’s the lesson we can learn from this?

The primary lesson is to think long-term and make decisions with that perspective in mind. What will matter in 5, 10 years? When you are making decisions based on short-term criteria, then the tides of life can change quickly. Developing your ability to think long-term, to connect your daily choices with an overarching purpose and vision, is the key. Six Seconds calls this skill pursuing noble goals, and it’s a hallmark of success because it’s a surefire way to avoid the traps of self-absorption and short-term thinking. When you actively consider what success looks like in your life with a long-term perspective, you are more likely to be successful over the long haul.

The second lesson is the importance of developing the skills you need to deal with life’s ups and downs.

2. Emotional intelligence is key

To be successful over the course of an entire life, one will inevitably deal with setbacks, struggles and pain. Dr. Vaillant, the longtime director of the study, focused a lot of his energy on how – and how effectively – the men in the study responded to life’s troubles. He called the skills one uses to deal with these setbacks “adaptations” – and they largely determined how successfully the men aged, both physically and psychologically.

In an interview with The Atlantic, Vaillant described these defenses as akin to basic biological processes. When we cut ourselves, our blood clots. Similarly, when we face a challenge big or small – a loved one’s death or a disagreement at work – these coping mechanisms guide us through the emotional situation. But just like clotting can save us from bleeding to death or clog an artery and kill us with a heart attack – the defenses we employ can save us or ruin us. They play out throughout our lives, in moments big and small, and the strength and health of our emotional adaptations is a big part of what makes a good life – or stands in the way.

Vaillant came up with a list of the healthiest adaptations, which he considered the pillars of a long and happy life – and it is not a stretch to say they almost perfectly aligned with the emotional intelligence skills in the Six Seconds Model of Emotional Intelligence.

Altruism – A commitment to others’ wellbeing, which is the skill of increasing empathy.

Anticipation – Creating a sense of positive outcome, which is exercising optimism.

Suppression – A conscious decision to postpone an impulse or decision, which is applying consequential thinking and to an extentrecognizing patterns.

Sublimation – Finding outlets and expressions for feelings that promote growth and good decisions, which is navigating emotions and pursuing noble goals.

Humor – Acquired through self-awareness.

These skills not only separated successful men from the less successful, but changed throughout the men’s lives. Many men developed healthy “adaptations” after acting out unhealthy ones for years, even decades. This aligns with a growing body of evidence that emotional intelligence skills can be learned, at any age. More on that below. In middle age, the men were four times a likely to use mature coping mechanisms as immature ones. Between 50 and 75, altruism and humor grew more prevalent. But there wasn’t any guarantee. Some men developed unhealthy adaptations (or didn’t employ healthy adaptations) that derailed careers, marriages, and entire lives.

Overall, the Grant Study highlights 3 different aspects of emotional intelligence that has been backed up by other research:

1. Emotional Intelligence is highly correlated with personal and professional success. 

2. Emotional intelligence skills are learnable and measurbale.

3. Emotional Intelligence tends to increase with age, though the correlation is slight.

But when asked about what makes a good life after studying the data, Vaillant didn’t mention adaptations or looking long-term first. He summed up the study’s findings this way: “The only thing that really matters in life are your relationships to other people.”

The data on this point is particularly amazing.

The Harvard Grant Study adds to the growing pile of evidence about the importance of emotional intelligence

3. Relationships, relationships, relationships

“When the study began, nobody cared about empathy or attachment. But the key to healthy aging is relationships, relationships, relationships,” Vaillant says. Close relationships, the data indicates, are what keep people happy throughout their lives. The study found strong relationships to be far and away the strongest predictor of life satisfaction, and better predictors of long and happy lives than social class, wealth, fame, IQ, or even genes. That finding proved true across the board among both the Harvard men and the inner-city participants.

And strong relationships are not only correlated with happiness, but with physical health, longevity, and financial success, too.

“The really surprising finding is that our relationships and how happy we are in our relationships has a powerful influence on our health,” says Robert Waldinger, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School who is the current director of the study. “The people who were the most satisfied in their relationships at age 50 were the healthiest at age 80. Strong relationships help to delay mental and physical decline. Taking care of your body is important, but tending to your relationships is a form of self-care too. That, I think, is the revelation.”

This revelation can be seen in both positive and negative terms. Meaning that while strong community seems to protect us from the literal coughs and colds of everyday life, a lack of community is also deadly. “Loneliness kills,” Waldinger says. “It’s as powerful as smoking or alcoholism.”

In addition to life satisfaction and physical health, relationships also largely determined a person’s financial success. The warmth of relationships was highly correlated with financial success, more so than cognitive intelligence – a finding consistent with other research. There was not a significant difference in maximum income earned between those with an IQ of about 110 versus those with an IQ above 150. But those who scored highest on the measurements of “warm relationships” earned significantly more than the others at their peak earning years.

Overall, the study found “a strong correlation between men’s flourishing lives and their relationships with family, friends, and community.” The men’s relationships at age 47 predicted late-life adjustment better than any other variable, except adaptations. But adaptations and relationships are, of course, inseparable. According to data from Six Seconds’ emotional intelligence assessment, the SEI, a person with high EQ is 38 times more likely to score high on relationships. Empathy, self-awareness and impulse control are relationship skills, and the people who have them tend to form strong bonds with others – and reap the benefits of those bonds.

Waldinger, the current director of the study, says that these findings have changed his own behavior: “It’s easy to get isolated, to get caught up in work and not remembering, ‘Oh, I haven’t seen these friends in a long time,’ ” Waldinger said. “So I try to pay more attention to my relationships than I used to.”

“It’s useful to know it’s a choice worth making.”

The Grant Study: G2

Scientists, led by the study’s director, Robert Waldinger, have expanded their research to include the men’s offspring, who now number 1,300 and are in their 50s and 60s. And more than a decade ago, researchers began including wives in the Grant and Glueck studies, correcting the most glaring flaw of the original study, which looked at a cohort of exclusively white males.

For a detailed look at the study today, its challenges and potential, check out this article from The Washington Post. 

Do these findings confirm or challenge your beliefs about what makes a good life? Post it in the comments below!


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Michael Miller
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