How to be happy in old age

September 28, 2014
harvard study 1

Why do some people flourish in later life, finding happiness and contentment while others become grumpy old men and women full of woe? If there’s a formula for a good life one man, Dr George Vaillant, knows it better than many. He was in charge of the world’s most famous, long-running study on human development. And he’s coming to Australia to talk about it.

The Grant study started in 1938 and followed 268 Harvard University male students for 75 years into their 90s. At the start, all kinds of things were measured in a man from his IQ to the “hanging length of his scrotum.” You had to be of a certain physique to be included in the study because it was assumed men with broad shoulders and narrow waists had the best chance of a long life. Norman Mailer and Leonard Bernstein were rejected but John Kennedy made the cut. The aim was to follow these young men through the vicissitudes of life, measuring and interviewing at intervals, to determine what factors counted most for happiness, health and longevity.

George Vaillant took over the study in 1966 when he was 32 and it became his life’s work. Nearly half a century later he laid out its findings in the book Triumphs of Experience. As a predictor of how the men would turn out, body type proved useless. So did birth order, and above a certain intelligence, IQ was no help. Even social class was no sure thing in determining a happy, healthy life into old age.  These men, among the brightest, most privileged of their generation, appeared to have had so much going for them. Yet by age 50 almost one-third had experienced a mental illness.

So what really mattered for happiness and health? A happy childhood, and the strength  and warmth of one’s relationships stood out. It sounds obvious today, perhaps. But back in 1938, the researchers paid short shrift to relationships. Cold, distant fathers and distracted mothers were par for the course in the early 20th century when these men were children. Discarding one assumption after another over the course of the study, Vaillant found that having a loving mother mattered to a man’s success and happiness right into late middle-age. The men weren’t ruined by bad mothering if they were loved by others in childhood. But a loving mother was a boon. By age 75, it was a man’s closeness to his father that counted. A man’s capacity to form warm, intimate relations throughout his life was also a good predictor of happiness into old age. “Happiness is love. Full stop,” Vaillant has famously concluded.

Many studies since have confirmed the importance of a happy childhood to flourishing in adulthood, and the importance of forming warm relationships. If this was all the Grant study yielded its findings would be of historical interest. What makes it fascinating and inspiring is its other main finding: people are capable of change. You can teach an old dog new tricks. Right into their 70s and 80s some of the men were changing for the better, finding the happiness late in life that had eluded them earlier. Between the ages of 50 and 75, humour and altruism became a bigger part of their life.

Some of the men who’d appeared to be hopeless cases in their 20s and 30s, socially isolated, anxious, and floundering in their careers, had turned into beloved family men and altruistic community leaders by their 60s. Some of the men who were socially competent and gregarious in their 20s and 30s – traits highly regarded by the researchers – were taken out early by alcoholism and smoking. It wasn’t so easy to predict who’d succeed in life by age 60, measured by having good relationships with your children, a stable marriage, supports other than a wife, and career success; or who would be contented in their 80s and 90s. It depended a lot on how people coped with the exigencies of life, whether they adapted in a mature way that promoted personal growth.

Vaillant, who at 80 is ten to 15 years younger than the men he tracked, is a wonderful biographer of his subjects. Using pseudonyms, he tells the story of Sam Lovelace, a straight A student who’s the child of a moody mother and remote, anxious father. At 50, married to an alcoholic wife, Lovelace is friendless and feels bullied at work. But by age 79 Lovelace looks younger than he had 25 years earlier. His wife had died, he’d remarried, become president of his retirement village. His second marriage wasn’t great but it was “an improvement over anything he had ever had before, and he could appreciate and rejoice in that.”

The story of Charles Boatwright helped Vaillant re-assess the importance of career in a man’s life. Boatwright’s lack of career commitment was a reason Vaillant had scored him in the early years as a potential ‘bad outcome.’ He jumped from one minor job to another throughout his life. Yet at 83 on the all-round ‘flourishing’ score Boatwright was one of the great success stories. “It took me a long time to understand that the career that Boatwright consolidated was looking after others more needy than himself,” Vaillant writes.

And here’s a titillating finding from the study I’ll throw in: Ageing liberals have more sex. The most politically conservative men ceased sexual relations at an average age of 68; the most politically liberal were active into their 80s. Make of that what you will.

Dr Vaillant will speak on November 7 and 8 at the Swinburne University of Technology, Melbourne. Click here for details, and to book. His visit is being organised through BASS Care and the university’s Psychology Clinic.

What do you think accounts for happiness in old age? How have you changed? Please Comment.

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