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Confessions of a Grant Study Groupie

Yes, it’s true. For the first time in my life, I consider myself a groupie. Not of some head- exploding indie-rock band, but of the “Grant Study,” an almost 80-year longitudinal study in which researchers followed the lives of 268 Harvard sophomores, classes 1939 to 1944. The goal of this unique study? Nothing short of finding the key to living a healthy, happy life. The secret to aging well.

The Study—one of the longest ever in human development—with its subsequent and still unfolding findings have captivated me ever since I came upon the first report of it in George Vaillant’s 1977 book, Adaptation to Life. Happily, just last month, my interest was rekindled when I had the chance to meet the Study’s current director, Dr. Robert J. Waldinger.

As part of the Study of Adult Development at Harvard Medical School, the Grant Study has collected data every two years since its inception by way of questionnaires, physicians’ reports, and personal interviews. The information has touched on all aspects of the men’s’ lives – physical and mental health, personality type, careers, marriages, retirement experience, family relationships, and not least of all, drinking habits.

Robert Waldinger, MD

Out of the original participants, some of whom were notables like John F. Kennedy and Ben Bradlee, 19 are still alive. Over the years, however, the research has expanded. First in the 1970s to include 456 disadvantaged young men who grew up in Boston between 1940 and 1945, known as the Glueck Study, and in more recent decades to include the offspring of the original men (now numbering 1300). The most recent expansion has been the addition of wives.

So why am I such an avid fan? Three reasons:

  1. Turns out, it is relationships that determine life satisfaction. Not money, not I.Q., not career, not even health, but relationships! As a professional who has studied Bowen Theory for the past 30 years, relationships are everything, so it is no surprise that such findings align with my keen interest in understanding family dynamics. There are so many questions as to the exact way in which relationships add to or subtract from one’s life. The effort to understand the ways in which multigenerational family relationships dynamics might overly influence a life course, could give people more choices as to how to increase one’s level of emotional maturity. There are many other areas of useful knowledge that may be unlocked in following individuals their families, friendships, and work lives over the generations. This would replace the predictable family relationship processes in both the nuclear and the multigenerational family. Family holds the key to unlocking a way to manage. Knowledge is useful in managing the challenges that present themselves as families evolve overtime. Bowen's research states that basic relationship patterns, developed for adapting to the parental family in childhood, are used in all other relationships throughout life. This assumption may soon have a great deal more evidence to support it.

  2. Although it’s true “We teach best what we most have to learn,” I was surprised and intrigued to read that Vaillant, the brilliant Director and principle investigator of the Study for over three decades, and a man one who stressed above all the importance of relationships, has had a difficult time himself with relationships. According to an article in The Atlantic, entitled “What Makes Us Happy,” June 2009, Vaillant is described by close friends as “a man plagued by distance and strife in his relationships.” With a rocky four-time marital history, he has experienced cutoff from four of his five children for long periods of time. It made me wonder about the possible disconnect between researching the human experience, and then being unable to integrate the findings into one’s own life. The question becomes: “Can the teacher/observer operationalize that which she teaches and studies?” I anticipate some exciting discussions ahead.

  3. Clearly, the Grant Study presents a wealth of exciting challenges for those of us involved with Bowen Family Systems Theory. What new insights could be gleaned from the Study’s recent multigenerational data when seen through that lens? Could Bowen Systems Theory add to a deeper, biological explanation of relationships and the role they play in health and well-being? Is this an opportunity to understand and perhaps redefine happiness by looking at the individual and how he or she manages self within the family system? This groupie thinks, yes.

In Adaptation to Life, Vaillant poses some fundamental questions about individual differences in confronting life's stresses. Why do some of us cope so well with what life allots us, he asks, while others cope badly or not at all? Are there ways in which understanding Bowen Family Systems Theory could effectively alter the patterns of our automatic behavior that make us unhappy, unhealthy, and unwise? Could it provide us with other choices? With the additional knowledge of Bowen Family Systems, I believe that we might be able to make the changes in our relationships which promote greater emotional maturity to have a more emotionally rewarding life.

Lots of questions, lots to be discovered. I believe I’ve found the intellectual challenge for this decade of my life.

George Vaillant, MD


Grant Study Groupie

#GrantStudy #Waldinger #Vaillant #LongitudinalStudy


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