Dr. George Vaillant is an American psychiatrist and Professor at Harvard Medical School, and a consultant in the Department of Psychiatry, Massachusetts General Hospital. He directed the Harvard Grant study for more than three decades and has written several books about it including Aging Well and Triumphs of Experience.
Is there a formula for a full, healthy life? For seven decades, researchers at Harvard University have been trying to answer that very question. In the late 1930s, they took 268 college-aged men and followed them throughout their lives – through jobs, relationships, wars, parenthood, and into old age. I directed the study for decades, and here are five key lessons learned from it.
1. Love equals happiness
Enjoy those positive relationships. Stable supportive marriages, for example, support better health and actually slow cognitive decline. At the end of life, men who had never been divorced, separated, or had “serious problems” in their marriage until the age of 50 performed better on memory tests, than those who had bad marriages. A good marriage is also linked to a lowered risk of dementia. That doesn’t mean stay married if it’s not working. Some men with second, or even fourth marriages – that lasted a decade or more – were far happier than men who reluctantly celebrated a 50th wedding anniversary. Even people who lived alone were happier than those involved in “high conflict” relationships.
2. Family matters
One’s relationship with family also appears to determine long-term health and wellbeing. Men with loving, positive relationships with their mothers, for example, were less likely to develop dementia in old age, and even earned more money – an average of $87,000 more per year! – than men whose mothers were uncaring. Being close to siblings proved to be a strong predictor of mental health by age 65. In fact, it’s as important as the effects of family closeness, good relations with parents, and the absence of childhood emotional problems combined.
This is original data collected from the results of the study.
These two men participated in the Harvard Grant study. They are pictured here at different points in their lives while they were being documented.
3. Keep mental health in mind
Staying physically fit is important, but so too is staying mentally healthy – and they are often related. Exercising in youth turns out to be a better predictor of good mental health in old age than it is of good physical health. And, conversely, depression can have a very negative effect on physical health. The study found that, as men got older, this was especially true. More than 70% of the men studied who were diagnosed with depression by age 50 had passed away or were chronically ill by age 63.
4. Don’t drink (too much)
Drinking too much is harmful. Alcohol abuse plays a significant role in 6 of 10 major causes of mortality. In part, this is due to drinking’s association with other things like sustained smoking, and because alcoholism is shown to be the cause, not the result, of depression. Looking to get sober? Long-term abstinence works. Alcoholics Anonymous has been shown to be better than medical treatment in mitigating alcoholism.
5. Money isn’t everything
The old adage that “money doesn’t buy happiness” appears to be true. The study’s researchers found that contentment by the time men were in their late 70s was not even suggestively associated with parental social class or even the man’s own income. In terms of achievement, the only thing that matters is that you be content at your work. It turns out, even though many of us think that being wealthy and in good health are key to being happy in retirement, good relationships are really what matter. Spouses, friends, and family were far more important factors in assuring happiness for men into their retirement years.
Overall, men who had better relationships with their family, friends, and community were happier and healthier than guys who were less social. They also lived significantly longer. Lonely men had more health problems, suffered more from sleep disorders and mental health issues, and were less happy. Good relationships are priceless.
The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily imply endorsement by Manulife.