For close to 80 years, Harvard University researchers have studied the lives of the same group of men. Since 1938, they’ve tracked their development, documenting every two years details about their physical and emotional health, their employment, their families and their friendships.
By looking at human development over a lifespan, the early researchers hoped to find trends that would provide insight into what factors ultimately led to a good life.
The big takeaway from the decades of research and millions of dollars spent on the famous Grant Study is that, as the Beatles sang, all you need is love. It was not money or status that determined a good life. Those who were happiest and healthier reported strong interpersonal relationships, while those who were isolated had declines in mental and physical health as they aged. In November 2015, Robert Waldinger, the director of the program, shared that key finding in a widely popular Ted Talk that has been viewed close to 14 million times — there’s clearly an appetite for learning what to prioritize to have more fulfilling lives.
But the program is now feeling the squeeze of a constrained funding climate, and Waldinger and his team worry that money will dry up.
Most of the budget for the longitudinal study comes from the federal government, the National Institutes of Health in particular, and every five years, Harvard has to make the case again for why the American taxpayer should foot the bill for this work.
It’s not lost on Waldinger, a psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital, that to an outsider what they do might not seem like the most pressing of research compared to looking for cures for cancer and Alzheimer’s disease. And with President Trump suggesting cutting NIH’s budget by 19 percent, Waldinger worries that the famous study could be viewed by the cash-strapped grant-givers as dispensable.
“One of the first things to go are the long-term things that don’t pay off right away,” he said. “This is basic psychological science, it’s not always directly applicable but gives you the underpinnings. It’s one of the things that lets you understand that homosexuality is not a choice for people, these are basic developmental understandings, we understand more about alcoholism being a disease and not a crime, we learn this by following people along.”
In 2009, The Atlantic featured the Grant Study on its cover with a wide-ranging interview with George Vaillant, who directed the study for 35 years. “To be able to study lives in such depth, over so many decades,” he said, “it was like looking through the Mount Palomar telescope.” (Once the most powerful in the world, the Atlantic author notes.)
Vaillant’s other main interest is the power of relationships. “It is social aptitude,” he writes, “not intellectual brilliance or parental social class, that leads to successful aging.” Warm connections are necessary — and if not found in a mother or father, they can come from siblings, uncles, friends, mentors. The men’s relationships at age 47, he found, predicted late-life adjustment better than any other variable, except defenses. Good sibling relationships seem especially powerful: 93 percent of the men who were thriving at age 65 had been close to a brother or sister when younger. In an interview in the March 2008 newsletter to the Grant Study subjects, Vaillant was asked, “What have you learned from the Grant Study men?” Vaillant’s response: “That the only thing that really matters in life are your relationships to other people.”
But beyond learning that human connection makes us happy, Waldinger said there is still knowledge to be gained by expanding the research to the second, and he hopes the third and fourth, generations of the original group.
So, what’s next for one of the longest longitudinal studies of human development ever conducted? And is it worth taxpayers continuing to pay for it?
Waldinger understands that money will be tight — NIH already cut his budget this year for the study by 10 percent in anticipation of future cuts, he said — but he argues that the study continues to offer promising new insights in the space of well-being and mental health. Comparing the memories of the second generation’s childhood to the stories their fathers shared in real time will provide insight into what memories from early life people carry with them and how they’re remembered or suppressed, which has a real effect on physical and emotional health.
For instance, Waldinger said, you might see someone with childhood trauma who has chronic inflammation or chronic stress, but it hasn’t yet become arthritis or coronary disease. They could piece together warning signs to catch these illnesses early.
It also could help understand the onset of mental illness, which is being taken more seriously as a disorder as disruptive to lives as many physical ones. Last month, the World Health Organization named depression as the globe’s leading health risk. Figuring out what factors might contribute to psychological disorders could lead to identifying ways to mitigate them, which would have huge economic and social benefits, Waldinger said.
“What we’re working on is how do these events get under your skin and into your bodies,” Waldinger said. “What if we can identify it early, what if we could earlier on predict the worst stuff about aging to keep people healthier longer.”
There is fair criticism of the study as it relates to American demographics today. It began as a study of only affluent white men at Harvard — among them President John F. Kennedy and former Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee — and was then expanded decades later to join another longitudinal study of young men in Boston tenement neighborhoods. But even then, the participants were all white. So diversity in the study considers only socioeconomic background, but not race or gender. Many of the original subjects from both studies have died, about 80 are still living, so in recent years, the Harvard team under Waldinger’s direction has begun tracking the men’s children and now they have an almost 50-50 split of women and men to examine. Yet there is still no racial diversity in the study.
“There’s no defense, we know this is a problem. We say in every single paper, more research is needed to test these findings out in other populations,” Waldinger said. “No sample is perfect, some would probably never fund our study, but we are doing something still valuable. People get that this is really hard to keep going, we’re a super-flawed study, but people get that it’s an amazing thing to keep going.”
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