What is success in life and how can it be measured? To answer those questions, a remarkable investigation named after philanthropist William T. Grant has been going on since 1937. Between that year and 1942, 268 sophomores were picked from a “highly competitive college,” unquestionably Harvard, for long-term study. They were bright and healthy and seemed destined for success. At Harvard during this period were such later celebrities as Leonard Bernstein (class of 1939), John F. Kennedy and Alan J. Lerner (1940), Elliot Richardson (1941) and Norman Mailer (1943), to name only a few. What has happened to 95 of those sophomores is the subject of a new book, Adaptation to Life (Little, Brown, $9.95), by Harvard Medical School psychiatrist George Vaillant, who is director of the Grant Study.
Among his group are top corporation executives, authors, physicians, statesmen, judges, professors and editors now in their 50s. Vaillant describes how they succeeded or failed and how they coped with their fate. The author fabricated the names and some details to conceal the identities of the men in the book.
Educated at Exeter and Harvard, Vaillant, 43, teaches at the medical school, treats patients at Cambridge Hospital and is associate director of its alcohol clinic. He lives with his second wife, Caroline, a social worker, their 4-month-old daughter, Joanna, and four children from his previous marriage. He discussed the study and his book with Gail Jennes of PEOPLE.
How were the original subjects studied?
It was a demanding commitment involving at least 20 hours of each man’s time during his last three years in college. The subjects were most loyal. Only 10 of the 268 dropped out of the study. Each boy had eight interviews with a psychiatrist and was seen by a social investigator who also went to his parents’ home. After physical and psychological testing, they underwent recording of their brain waves and measurement from head to toe. Once they graduated they received an annual or biennial questionnaire.
What happened to them?
Virtually all achieved professional distinction. Most were without disabling physical illness. Over 90 percent founded stable families. Although originally chosen for success in the ivory tower of academe, they showed common sense and courage in World War II. They won 20 Bronze Stars, three Legions of Merit, three Distinguished Flying Crosses and one Navy Cross. About 25 years after graduation, the average subject had the income and social standing of a successful businessman or professional with the political attitudes, intellectual tastes and life-style of a college professor. A quarter of them became lawyers or doctors, 15 percent became teachers—mainly at the college level—20 percent went into business and the remaining 40 percent ventured into areas like architecture, advertising, banking, government or engineering.
Were they happy?
Yes. Many described their work as “extremely satisfying” and their health as excellent. Their mortality rate was 50 percent less than their classmates’.
Was it all smooth sailing for them?
No, it wasn’t. All displayed in abundance what Freud called the psycho-pathology of everyday life. None experienced difficulties too severe to master, but none had survived without pain, effort and anxiety.
When it came to the 95 men in your book, how did you measure success?
I started to interview them in 1967, using several strategies. One was the Adult Adjustment Scale, a battery of 32 items in four areas—work, social, psychological and medical. I assessed career by items like income, success relative to the father, and promotions. Social adjustment was rated by stable marriage, friendships, relations with parents and siblings. Psychological adaptation was measured by job enjoyment, psychiatric visits and use of mood-altering drugs. Items reflecting health included amounts of sick leave and hospitalization.
The men who did best—what were they like?
They had energy, warmth, a capacity to make the interviewer glad to have known them. They had a basic trust in the universe and a capacity for unambivalent enthusiasm for both friends and work. They had not won success at the cost of poor marriages and neglected children. They also could take good vacations and knew how to play.
How about those who fared worst?
They were often depressed or isolated, depended on fantasy to deal with life’s problems and had tremendous difficulty playing and taking vacations. Almost all their love relationships were ambivalent and qualified. And they were three times as likely to abuse alcohol and tranquilizers.
What were other differences between best and worst?
The most compelling contrast was in physical health. Over the last 25 years, the worst spent an average of 13 weeks in the hospital, the best averaged only two. For example, one subject whom I call Steven Kowalski was an ebullient businessman who loved his work, made a success of life and a virtue of aggression. He liked to ski and play tennis. Leslie Angst was a harried banker who worried about his chronic failure, didn’t enjoy his marriage and drank half a bottle of whiskey every night. He was passive; his hobby was watching television. In 1975 Kowalski had excellent health; Angst had been dead for three years.
How did economic background affect success?
It didn’t. Initiative, a good education and the passage of more than 25 years erased all statistical differences. An example is David Goodhart, the son of a Detroit blue-collar worker, who went to indifferent urban public schools. His alcoholic father was often unemployed. Goodhart graduated from college on a scholarship magna cum laude. At 47, he was earning $35,000 a year as an authority in urban affairs for the Ford Foundation.
Was there a sine qua non of success?
The study points to the crucial role of defense mechanisms—the ways in which the men changed themselves and the world around them to adapt to life successfully. When confronted by conflict, they engaged in unconscious but often creative behavior. Various styles of adapting allowed them to carry on life’s business without anxiety or depression.
What are some of these defense mechanisms?
Humor, altruism, suppression and anticipation, but sublimation is the most appealing. An example is a New York magazine editor, Frederick Lion, who felt tremendous grief when one of his closest friends was killed in a hunting accident and dealt with it creatively by writing the best poem of his life. Another example is Prof. Dylan Bright. During great personal crisis and despair about his marriage and career, he was tempted to lose himself in alcohol and daredevil pursuits like stock car racing. But he was able to channel his passions into the equally exciting and far more adaptive search in the Amazon for new species of orchids.
Why did some of these men manage to cope better than others?
It depended on the defense mechanisms they chose. Some of the men handled conflicts at one point by acting them out indiscriminately, at another by holding in and denying them, and at yet another by helping others with similar problems.
Can you give an example?
James O’Neill, a Boston economist, was very interested in statistics and probability. When he became an alcoholic, his interest in probability took him to the racetrack, where he lost what little money he didn’t spend on drinking. Society calls his acting-out delinquent. Yet when he became sober, he used his intellectual interest to help set up the Massachusetts lottery. His old passion for gambling was sublimated in a way that helped mankind.
What stages in life did the Grant Study men go through?
First, establishing an identity separate from their family origin. Second, achieving intimacy, which for this 1940s sample was usually an enjoyable and meaningful marriage. Next, career consolidation. Then genuinely caring for other adults as well as children. Finally, in their 50s, assuming some responsibility for passing the torch to the next generation.
Is love required for true success?
Yes. Living involves losing people, and unless we learn to love new people, eventually we become bankrupt. Enjoying those we spend the most time with is a marker of health.
What are the lessons to be learned from these men’s lives?
No whim of fate, no Freudian trauma, no loss of a loved one is as devastating to the human spirit as some chronic ambivalent relationship that keeps us forever from saying goodbye. A single turning rarely changed the quality of the men’s journey through life. Styles of adaptation seemed to have much more effect than the insults that chance inflicted upon them.