The Sunday Long Read
What is a good life? The question has concerned philosophers, theologians and social scientists for centuries. In recent years scientists and policymakers have recognised that focusing public policy narrowly on economic growth may be missing the point of what makes life satisfying. Should we all think more about how to enable us all to live a good life?
So, how do we understand what really makes life satisfying. It must be more than a matter of ticking a “happiness” box on a questionnaire. What can we learn from research into how people change over the decades? What is the influence of parents, childhood, relationships, or physical and mental health? How do political and religious beliefs affect quality of life? When we look back at the end, what do we make of it all?
Social scientists explore these questions in a variety of ways, but one of the most powerful is the “longitudinal study”, which takes a group of people, and follows them over a number of years with tools, including questionnaires, interviews, tests and examinations. The timescale involved makes such studies expensive, and difficult to create and manage. Over decades, the researchers and funders move on, retire and die, politicians and academics lose interest, and society changes around them. So such studies are rare, but the results have immense value in understanding how people change, and what makes their lives worthwhile or disappointing.
There have been a number of such studies in the UK. Probably the best known is the “Seven Up” study launched in 1964 by Granada TV. This took a group of seven year olds in 1964, and returned to interview them (on camera) every seven years since.
The first large-scale academic study in Britain, the National Survey of Health and Development, was set up to coincide with the launch of the NHS, studying the children born in one week in March 1946. The records of these people, now in their 70s, begins with observations and measurements from doctors, midwives and parents at birth. It now includes data from 25 follow up surveys, and most recently from a supplementary survey about the impact of Covid-19. Since 1946 four more such UK cohort studies have been started.
The Harvard Study
The oldest of the longitudinal studies comes from the USA. The Harvard “Grant Study” (named after its first funder, W.T.Grant), began around 1940 with a group of 268 (white male) Harvard undergraduates identified as “potential leaders” (including four who later ran for the Senate, and the future President Kennedy). For comparison, the investigators later added a second group of male Boston residents from much less privileged backgrounds (the Glueck study). All these have been studied systematically, from 1938 to their deaths.
Every two years each one completed a questionnaire about their life, education, career, activities and relationships, and every ten years they, and sometimes their partners, were interviewed in depth, usually in their own homes. Health data was collected from doctors. So we know each individual from late adolescence, through family formation, career, retirement and death. The study now includes children and grandchildren of the original participants.
The long term relationship between the study and the participants enables researchers to probe in much more depth than conventional social surveys. Participants are interviewed in their own homes or neighbourhoods, and interviewers document a host of details about how they are living. Participants’ memories can be tested against previous interview transcripts, sometimes with startling results. What people remember helps us understand how they understand themselves, but the study evidence shows that it can be a very inaccurate account of what actually happened.
The study reflects advances (and fashions) in the social sciences, and the interests of its four directors. When the study began it had a focus on leadership, and the Harvard participants were selected because they were believed to be potential leaders. At the beginning, nobody bothered to ask about relationships. Instead, they focused on physique, which was believed to correlate with leadership. So, there were measures of chest expansion, and bumps on the skull. It took years before the investigators acknowledged that some great leaders were physically feeble specimens.
Later social psychology became a bigger focus and new questions and interview styles from psychiatry were introduced. New resources in genetics and brain scanning were added, and some participants donated their brains to the study. Over time theories about adult development were formulated, modified and abandoned. If such a study was being launched today, it would, of course, include women and people from minority groups, but Harvard did not award degrees to women until 1963, over 20 years after the Grant study began..
The Triumphs of Experience
In 2012, George Vaillant, Director of the study for 35 years, published The Triumphs of Experience . He reviewed all the data on 23 of the original participants when they were all in their 70s, and considered how his own understanding had changed over his years as Director. His book is both an account of the history and the research and a fascinating collection of portraits of individual participants.
The book is a rich kaleidoscope of human life in all its variety and oddity. Rich and poor, hypochondriacs and extroverts, the happily and miserably married, and people who returned from the War with PTSD; politicians, carpenters and teachers. And some remarkable contrasts: one successful New York lawyer continued working full time into his seventies despite spectacular heavy drinking throughout his life, while others saw their lives destroyed by alcohol.
He set himself the question “which predicts successful old age: physical endowment, childhood social privilege, or early love?” Some of his findings were surprising, others less so. They included:
- Personality is not fixed. People go on developing throughout life. Some people change radically, even in their 70s and 80s.
- What people do tells you more about life than what they say.
- Warmth of childhood relationships with both fathers and mothers is very important
- People with warmer relationships are healthier, live longer, earn more and cope better with challenges
- Career success, earnings, intelligence and physique do not predict happiness or life satisfaction.
- Alcoholism is very powerfully destructive, for adults and their dependents. Recovery is rare and alcohol accounted for 57% of divorces among participants.
- Political views are stable across the lifecourse, (and conservatives have less sex)
- People who are loved live longer: loneliness kills
Vaillant’s overwhelming conclusion is that the quality of life depends on the quality of relationships, whether with partners, children, friends, or workmates. Critically, success was associated with the ability to maintain those relationships despite challenges and crises. The skills to do that are usually set in childhood, and those who have warmth as children start life with a huge advantage, though some people with cold childhoods manage to overcome this. And of all the challenges that participants faced, alcoholism was the most devastating for the addict and all those around.
The Good Life
In 2005 the fourth Director, Robert Waldinger, took over as Director. His specialist interest in relationships built naturally on Valliant’s conclusions. He carried out another round of interviews, adding respondents’ partners, children (then themselves approaching retirement), and grandchildren.
With his colleague Marc Shulz, he has just published The Good Life. Where Vaillant concentrated on the history of the study and the lives of the individuals, this book draws on the mountain of evidence from the study and other research, to extract lessons about what a good life might mean, and how we might try to achieve it. But it builds on and expands Vaillant’s conclusion, that “the most important contributor to joy and success in adult life is love”. Waldinger’s Ted Talk outlines the issues.
Waldinger and Schulz conclude:
“When we asked people to look back on their lives when they were in their 80s, we said: ‘What are you proudest of? And what do you most regret?’ And what people were proudest of almost always was relationships. … People didn’t mention the awards they’d won or the money they made. They said: ‘I raised healthy kids. I had a good marriage. I mentored people at work,’”
The Harvard study, with its later additions, provides a huge resource of material for researchers who want to understand what makes a good life, and especially how people overcome (or don’t overcome) challenges. As it expands to include the children and grandchildren of the original participants, it becomes possible to study how attitudes, behaviour and experience are influenced (or not) by previous generations.
After Vaillant’s account of what makes a good life in The Triumphs of Experience, The Good Life shows some ways of applying those lessons to living in today’s world. We all want to understand how we can have a good life, and how we can ensure a good life for those we care about. For all of us, and for those concerned with social policy, this work provides unique and valuable insight.