Study proves Beatles right: All you need is love

A Harvard study following 268 men over 70 years finds that relationships are key to success and happiness.
Relationships with family and friends were a key predictor of later health, income and job prestige, George Vaillant says. ((iStockphoto))

The good life is far easier to envision than to achieve. But one study put 268 men's lives under a microscope for nearly 70 years to find out whether researchers could discover the path to happiness.

Dr. Arlie Bock, who was in charge of Harvard University's health services, came up with the idea in the 1930s. He was frustrated that medical research largely focused on disorders and illness rather than what made people happy, and he approached W.T. Grant, a department store magnate, to bankroll the long-term project.

Over the decades, the study painstakingly documented the lives of the men, all Harvard sophomores recruited in the early 1940s.

Since 1967, George Vaillant, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, has been the study's chief investigator. He spoke to CBC Radio's The Current from Cambridge, Mass., about his findings. Here's an excerpt from the interview.

I want to start with kind of that eureka moment, perhaps, when you first discovered this research was being done. I'm curious what you thought.

Actually, I was initially disappointed because I wanted to study the natural history of schizophrenics and discovered in 1940 that Harvard hadn't had a health service where I could search for schizophrenics, which had been my research up to that point.… And all they had was this boring study of normals. And it wasn't until I started reading the records and putting together 25 years of their life — from sophomore year until the 25th reunion — that I totally fell in love with the study.

For people who don't understand what the Grant study is, what exactly was it?

The study began in a very arrogant, chauvinistic way to study normal human beings, and they did that by focusing on men who happened to be going in the northeastern United States to Harvard, who were entirely white. And not surprisingly, the first five years of the study didn't supply any Earth-shaking conclusions, except that relatively healthy white Caucasians aren't terribly exciting.

It was only when the study lasted for decades that it increasingly became interesting. And instead of being white Caucasian males, it became possible to study the natural history of human beings.

George Vaillant, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, says he fell in love when he first discovered the Grant study. ((Courtesy of Caroline O. Vaillant))

When people fuss at me that it's not a representative sample, instead if you look at everybody with the same education, the same coloured skin, the same gender and the same historical core, you don't have to control for all the variability of Noah's Ark.… The homogeneity was wonderful for the study of more biologic aspects of human beings.

How many men were involved and what kind were they?

There were 268 Harvard sophomores of the classes 1940 through '44. Fifty per cent of them were on scholarship and had to work during college to get themselves through. Of course, some had parents who were fantastically rich. They virtually all served in World War II and they enjoyed the wonderful privilege of being an American during 'the 50s and '60s, when the dollar was strong and General Motors was busy.

The study really dials in, if you will, on the subjects, especially how they deal with problems or challenges in their lives over an extended period of time. What conclusions have we been able to draw from what we've seen in these last 50 years of so?

When I was being interviewed by the Atlantic magazine, I made the risky generalization that happiness is love, full stop. And the most important thing in anyone's life are their relationships. And a newspaper editor challenged me on that: "Well, that was an outrageous generalization," and "George, are you just being sentimental?"

So I spent the last two months going over all the data and seeing what predicted what. And it's very dramatic that the quality of a college sophomore's relationships with his family and then his relationships with people in young adulthood not only predicted his social supports when he was aging, but also predicted his income, his occupational prestige and his medical health. But if instead you focused, as people often do, on his intelligence, on his social class, on his childhood health, they predicted nothing.

When we're talking about this group of men from Harvard, over all this period of time, are there one or two that come to mind?

The one who comes to mind most is someone who at his 25th reunion seemed stumbling along as a seventh grade teacher, so his income was one of the lowest in the study, and instead of being a famous writer he was just helping his seventh grade students write their own papers.

It was true he had a nice family and enjoyed sailing, but I didn't think anything of him. And when it came time to re-interview him at 75, he was leading the most wonderful life and it was a function of, for 75 years, having done everything right. He still was neither powerful or rich, but he lived in a lovely family compound, which he largely built himself. He was devoted to teaching his grandchildren sailing, he had a perfectly wonderful marriage and the inside of the home was beautiful, both from tasteful decoration but also the piles of laundry that reflected the harmonious living together of three generations.

So, professor, how did he do it? How did he get there?

The short answer is L-O-V-E. He spent his life thinking of other people than himself. When he was in high school, he had wanted to be a writer and he had sort of collected notes for writing all of his life. And I asked him at 75 what had happened to the novel in his bottom drawer and he said, "Well, it's still there, but I've helped two of my children publish their books."

It was that mixture of being able to play — he loved sailing, he didn't take himself too seriously. It was being on the one hand laid back, and on the other hand quintessentially unselfish.

I mean, it clearly is an enormous balancing act. It isn't something you could read about in how-to-do-it books, but it certainly has helped me letting these men show me rather than tell me how to live my life.

There is one character, someone named Dr. Godfrey Minot Camille. You refer to him in your book Aging Well. He was quite an interesting piece of work in college. He was a hypochondriac, he was kind of introspective, shy. He seemed troubled. What happened to him as you followed him in the research over the years?

Part of what happened to him was he grew up. At 35 to 40, he was a lot like most of us are from 20 to 25. He learned how to make commitments to girlfriends rather than use them as sort of objects in his play. But equally important, very slowly, he learned how to love.

And when I asked him at 70 what he learned from his children — this is usually a question that stumps about half of the 60- to 70-year-olds I ask it —  and he sort of fenced the question. Then 24 hours later, he came up to me, burst into tears and said, "You know what I learned from my children, it was love."

His nuclear family was a total disaster, but he had the intelligence and the family tree to go to Europe and find second cousins and distinguished members of his family. So instead of being totally ashamed of the ratbags that were his parents, he found an extended family that he could correspond with, that he could visit.

And I guess, the final thing — and this is loaded because if you say he found religion, people roll their eyes and ask if you've read Richard Dawkins — but if instead you say positive emotions, which means faith, hope, love, compassion, forgiveness, he worked on these emotions within the setting of the Episcopalian church, and it provided him with a spiritual family that he simply hadn't had before.

It seems that having done this for so long, and doing these interviews and being in correspondence with these men, how has following these men's lives affected your own?

I get up every morning thinking I'm the luckiest person in the world.… I've always regarded the study as just a huge playpen where I went to work every day and it meant reading a fresh novel or hearing a fresh chapter of the soap opera unfold. And it's fascinating, and at the same time it does help one understand what's important and what's not so important.

I guess I wonder if the effort to quantify in some way what constitutes happiness or success, I mean, how difficult is that? And can we ever really know?

That's the big problem that I've wrestled with for the last 40 years, and one of the things that makes it a big problem is value judgment and my answer.… I say that you really can know if you follow people for 50 years, once you put lives in perspective, and you stand back a little bit like the way you do aerial archeology, patterns become pretty clear.

I've used the approach of the decathlon. Is a shot-putter a better track athlete than a sprinter? Who's to know. And it's all value judgment [depending] on whether you value strength or speed more. But all you have to do is rank order the people on a track team in terms of how well they do the decathlon. And people with really low decathlon scores are usually not as good track athletes as people who do well. My definition of health has always been physical health, mental and subjective, social relationships, ability to play and ability to enjoy one's work and have other people enjoy it.

Just being a private, happy lepidopterist in my mind is not as healthy as being a collector of butterflies that not only has a good time but is respected by the natural history museum. And that health involves both feeling good about things inside but also having your neighbour not think you're a pain in the tail.