SINCE 1966, George E Vaillant, Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard, has followed the lives of several hundred men in the Grant Study. They are now aged around 90. The latest installment in the study is called Triumphs of Experience
The longest study of human development ever undertaken, it began in 1938 to chart the physical and emotional health of more than 200 US men. Vaillant says there is some welcome news – our lives go on evolving in our later years, and often become more fulfilling.
Some are unsurprising. Alcoholism has a devastating effect on family and professional life. If a lifetime of achievement is your goal, then it is better to have had an emotionally supportive childhood than a socially privileged upbringing. Pragmatic and practical men are more likely to be politically conservative, while sensitive and intuitive men lean liberal. Other findings upset conventional wisdom (Republican men are no less altruistic than Democratic men) or proved to be just downright confounding: The longer-lived a man's maternal grandfather, the more likely it is that he will enjoy mental health.
“So out of control does the whole process of ageing often feel that I was relieved when our wealth of data revealed that some aspects of successful ageing – or lack of it – are in fact negotiable,” he writes. The study said recovery from a lousy childhood was possible and memories of a happy childhood were a lifelong source of strength.
Marriage brings more contentment after 70, and ageing after 80 is determined less by heredity than by habits formed before 50. Ageing with grace and vitality depends more on us than on our genes. In addition, what what a man thinks at a late stage of life much depends on how successfully he has come to terms with life's regrets.
Mr. Vaillant concludes that personal development need never stop, no matter how old you are. At an advanced age, though, growth consists more in finding new hues and shades in one's past than in conceiving plans for the future. As the Harvard Study shows with such poignancy, older men treat what lies behind them much as younger men treat what lies ahead. The future is what young men dream about; they ponder the extent to which it is predetermined or open; and they try to shape it. For old men, it is the past they dream about; it is the past whose inevitability or indeterminateness they attempt to measure; and it is the past they try to reshape. For the most regret-free men in the Harvard study, the past is the work of their future.