Brett and Kate McKay, Art of Manliness, September 2, 2014
Why do two men from very similar socioeconomic and educational backgrounds sometimes take very different life paths?
Is nature or nurture more important in determining a man’s success in his relationships and career?
What physiological and psychological traits present in a man’s younger years predict his chances of living a long, flourishing life?
In 1938, researchers at Harvard’s medical school began a study that aimed to answer these fascinating questions and discover what factors lead to an “optimum” life. The study recruited 268 of the university’s sophomores from the all-male classes of 1939-1944, and set out to examine every aspect of their lives for at least a couple decades. The men selected were healthy in body and mind, and deemed likely to capitalize on their potential and become successful adults. While many of them came from well-off families, some were intelligent students who had been plucked from poor households and given full scholarships.
The study’s participants were signing on for extensive probing into their lives. They were given physicals and thorough psychological evaluations; researchers visited their homes to interview their parents, as well as three generations of relatives; each year the men filled out an exhaustive questionnaire that inquired about numerous aspects of their health, habits, family, political views, career, and marriage; and every 10-15 years, the men were interviewed face-to-face.
This research project, known as the Grant Study, continues today, more than 75 years after its inception. Having been extended numerous times, it has become one of the longest longitudinal studies ever conducted. When George Vaillant, who has been the study’s director for several decades, first started working on the project, he was thirty-two, and the participants were in their fifties; today, Vaillant is pushing eighty, and the men are in their nineties. The participants continue to fill out their annual questionnaires, and Vaillant continues to study their answers.
Nothing quite like the Grant Study has ever been attempted; as Vaillant puts it, this research represents “one of the first vantage points the world has ever had on which to stand and look prospectively at a man’s life from eighteen to ninety.” The mountains of data collected over more than seven decades has become a rich trove for examining what factors present in a man’s younger years best predict whether he will be successful and happy into old age. The study’s researchers have continually sifted through the results and reports in an attempt to ferret out these promising elements. As Vaillant details in The Triumphs of Experience, some of the researchers’ original hypotheses did not pan out, and the job of untangling issues of causation and correlation goes on. Yet several insights have emerged very strongly and prominently from the data, offering brightly marked guideposts to a life well lived.
The Importance of Relationships
To discover what factors predicted a man’s ability to become a successful, well-adjusted adult, Vaillant created a list of ten accomplishments, which included career success and professional prominence, mental and physical health, a good marriage, supportive friendships, closeness to one’s children, the ability to enjoy work, love, and play, and a subjective level of happiness. He called this set of accomplishments the “Decathlon of Flourishing”, and measured the level to which each man in the study had achieved these “events” between the ages 65-80. Vaillant then looked back over the men’s personal histories to figure out what factors present earlier in the men’s lives most predicted their Decathlon score.
When Vaillant crunched the numbers, he discovered no significant relationship between a man’s level of flourishing and his IQ, his body type (mesomorph, ectomorph, endomorph), or the income and education level of his parents.
The factors that did loom large, and collectively predicted all ten Decathlon events, had one thing in common: relationships. This rubric included:
- A warm, supportive childhood
- A mature “coping style” (being able to roll with the punches, be patient with others, keep a sense of humor in the face of setbacks, delay gratification, etc.)
- Overall “soundness” as evaluated during college years (resilient, warm personality, social, not overly sensitive)
- Warm adult relationships between the ages of 37-47 (having close friends, maintaining contact with family, being active in social organizations)
Vaillant found that the men who had the best scores in these areas during their youth and mid-life, were the happiest, most successful, and best adjusted in their latter years. This is the finding of the Grant Study that has emerged most prominently: “It was the capacity for intimate relationships that predicted flourishing in all aspects of these men’s lives.”
The powerful effect of intimate relationships can be seen in a variety of factors in a man’s life, including their income levels:
- Men with at least one good relationship with a sibling growing up made $51,000 more per year than men who had poor relationships with their siblings, or no siblings at all
- Men who grew up in cohesive homes made $66,000 more per year than men from unstable ones
- Men with warm mothers took home $87,000 more than those men whose mothers were uncaring
- The 58 men with the best scores for warm relationships made almost $150,000 more per year than the 31 men with the worst scores
Remember that these men all entered the workforce with a Harvard education. Also remember that their parents’ socioeconomic status turned out not to be a significant factor in their own future income.
In addition to finding that warm relationships in general had a positive impact on the men’s lives, Vaillant uncovered specific effects that stemmed from a man’s childhood, and from the respective influence of his mother and father.
The Impact of a Man’s Childhood
In order to gauge the effect of a man’s childhood on his future prospects in life, Vaillant scored the quality of the participants’ upbringing according to these criteria:
- Was the home atmosphere warm and stable?
- Was the boy’s relationship with his father warm and encouraging, conducive to autonomy, and supportive of initiative and self-esteem?
- Was the boy’s relationship with his mother warm and encouraging, conducive to autonomy, and supportive of initiative and self-esteem?
- Would the rater have wished to grow up in that home environment?
- Was the boy close to at least one sibling?
When the outcomes of the men’s lives were analyzed, and compared to this set of criteria, it became quite clear that “for good or ill, the effects of childhood last a long time.” A warm childhood proved a much stronger predictor of many aspects of a man’s flourishing later in life, including his overall contentment in his late seventies, than either his parent’s social class or his own income. These effects are particularly striking when the men with the warmest childhoods (who were dubbed “the Cherished”) are compared with those in the bottom tenth (who were called “the Loveless”):
- The Cherished made 50% more money than the Loveless
- The Cherished were 5X more likely to enjoy rich friendships and warm social supports at age seventy
- The Loveless were 3.5X more likely to be diagnosed as mentally ill (which includes serious depression, abuse of drugs and alcohol, and need for extended psychiatric care)
- The Loveless were 5X more likely to be unusually anxious
- The Loveless took more prescription drugs of all kinds, and were twice as likely to seek medical attention for minor physical complaints
What Goes Right Matters More Than What Goes Wrong
In studying the powerful impact a man’s childhood has on his prospects for health, happiness, and success, an important corollary was discovered: “it is not any one thing for good or ill — social advantage, abusive parents, physical weakness — that determines the way children adapt to life, but the quality of their total experience.” Basically, what the Grant Study found is that even if a lot of bad things happen during your childhood, if they’re outweighed by the good things, you’ll still turn out okay. So if, say, a man had an absent father but a warm relationship with his mother and siblings, or cold parents, but loving grandparents, his prospects for future flourishing were still good. It was not any one factor, or constellation of factors, Vaillant reports, but the quality of one’s childhood as a whole that mattered most.
This point is driven home by the findings of a study that was done in tandem with the Grant Study. Since the participants in the Grant Study were not a terribly diverse group, in 1940 researchers began to run the Gluek Study alongside it, which included a second cohort of 456 disadvantaged non-delinquent inner-city youths from the Boston area. When the childhoods of the men in this study were examined, it was found that even if the family was poor, the father was on welfare, and the family had numerous other problems, sons who were loved by their mothers, admired their dads, and had good friendships went on to become successful and attain a higher socioeconomic status. This explains why men who grew up in impoverished households, but who go on to flourish anyway, often say things like, “Even though we were poor, we never realized it when we were children, because our parents made our home such a wonderful place.”
The Influence of a Mother
Not only did a man’s overall childhood experience greatly impact the rest of his life, but his mother and father each influenced it in a particular way. The Grant Study found that a warm relationship with his mother was significantly associated with a man’s:
- effectiveness at work
- maximum late-life income
- military rank at the end of WWII
- inclusion in Who’s Who
- IQ in college
- Verbal test scores
- Class rank in college
- Mental competence at age 80
On the flip side of that last point is the fact that “a poor relationship with his mother was very significantly, and very surprisingly, associated with dementia.” Men who lacked a warm relationship with their mothers were 3X more likely to get dementia in their old age.
The Influence of a Father
The Grant Study also found influences that were associated exclusively with dads. Loving fathers imparted to their sons:
- enhanced capacity to play
- more enjoyment of vacations
- greater likelihood of being able to use humor as a healthy coping mechanism
- better adjustment to, and contentment with, life after retirement
- less anxiety and fewer physical and mental symptoms under stress in young adulthood
In the negative column, it “was not the men with poor mothering but the ones with poor fathering who were significantly more likely to have poor marriages over their lifetimes.” Men who lacked a positive relationship with their fathers were also “much more likely to call themselves pessimists and to report having trouble letting others get close.”
If there was ever any doubt, fathers matter, a lot: When all is said and done, a man’s relationship with his father very significantly predicted his overall life satisfaction at age 75–“a variable not even suggestively associated with the maternal relationship.”