In 1938 Harvard University began following 268 male undergraduate students and kicked off the longest-running longitudinal studies of human development in history. The study’s goal was to determine as best as possible what factors contribute most strongly to human flourishing. The astonishing range of psychological, anthropological, and physical traits — ranging from personality type to IQ to drinking habits to family relationships to “hanging length of his scrotum” — indicates just how exhaustive and quantifiable the research data has become. Recently, George Vaillant, who directed the study for more than three decades, published the study’s findings in the 2012 book Triumphs of Experience (Amazon)and the following is the book’s synopsis:
“At a time when many people around the world are living into their tenth decade, the longest longitudinal study of human development ever undertaken offers some welcome news for the new old age: our lives continue to evolve in our later years, and often become more fulfilling than before. Begun in 1938, the Grant Study of Adult Development charted the physical and emotional health of over 200 men, starting with their undergraduate days. The now-classic ‘Adaptation to Life’ reported on the men’s lives up to age 55 and helped us understand adult maturation. Now George Vaillant follows the men into their nineties, documenting for the first time what it is like to flourish far beyond conventional retirement. Reporting on all aspects of male life, including relationships, politics and religion, coping strategies, and alcohol use (its abuse being by far the greatest disruptor of health and happiness for the study’s subjects), ‘Triumphs of Experience’ shares a number of surprising findings. For example, the people who do well in old age did not necessarily do so well in midlife, and vice versa. While the study confirms that recovery from a lousy childhood is possible, memories of a happy childhood are a lifelong source of strength. Marriages bring much more contentment after age 70, and physical aging after 80 is determined less by heredity than by habits formed prior to age 50. The credit for growing old with grace and vitality, it seems, goes more to ourselves than to our stellar genetic makeup.”
As you can imagine, the study’s discoveries are bountiful, but the most significant finding of all is that “Alcoholism is a disorder of great destructive power.” In fact, alcoholism is the single strongest cause of divorce between the Grant Study men and their wives. Alcoholism was also found to be strongly coupled with neurosis and depression (which most often follows alcohol abuse, rather than preceding it). Together with cigarette smoking, alcoholism proves to be the #1 greatest cause of morbidity and death. And above a certain level, intelligence doesn’t prevent the damage.
With regards to income, there was no noticeable difference in maximum income earned by men with IQs in the 110-115 range vs. men with IQs above 150. With regards to sex lives, one of the most fascinating discoveries is that aging liberals have way more sex. Political ideology had no bearing on overall life satisfaction, but the most conservative men on average shut down their sex lives around age 68, while the most liberal men had healthy sex lives well into their 80s. Vaillant writes, “I have consulted urologists about this, they have no idea why it might be so.”