I want to highlight a fascinating study of Harvard graduates that is discussed in this article. The study, which has taken place over 75 years, looks at the lives of 268 men and studies how their lives have turned out.
When Vaillant crunched the numbers, he discovered no significant relationship between a man’s level of flourishing and his IQ, his body type (mesomorph, ectomorph, endomorph), or the income and education level of his parents.
The factors that did loom large, and collectively predicted all ten Decathlon events, had one thing in common: relationships. This rubric included:
*A warm, supportive childhood
*A mature “coping style” (being able to roll with the punches, be patient with others, keep a sense of humor in the face of setbacks, delay gratification, etc.)
*Overall “soundness” as evaluated during college years (resilient, warm personality, social, not overly sensitive)
Warm adult relationships between the ages of 37-47 (having close friends, maintaining contact with family, being active in social organizations)
*Vaillant found that the men who had the best scores in these areas during their youth and mid-life, were the happiest, most successful, and best adjusted in their latter years. This is the finding of the Grant Study that has emerged most prominently: “It was the capacity for intimate relationships that predicted flourishing in all aspects of these men’s lives.”
There are people reading this who are saying to themselves, “duh, nothing could be more obvious.” But hold on a second. I want you to stop and ponder how many General Conference talks over the years have emphasized these features. How many times have prophets and other speakers emphasized the importance of family, of giving time to your children, of loving your children? How often have they emphasized being patient and keeping a sense of humor during rough times? How often have they talked about the importance of doing your calling and your home and visiting teaching (which is, at the end of the day, about maintaining relationships)?
Indeed, if there is a primary message from General Conference it is: love God and Jesus Christ and love your fellow man. And it turns out that the people who actually do this are the happiest and most successful in real life.
The study makes the following conclusions:
When the outcomes of the men’s lives were analyzed, and compared to this set of criteria, it became quite clear that “for good or ill, the effects of childhood last a long time.” A warm childhood proved a much stronger predictor of many aspects of a man’s flourishing later in life, including his overall contentment in his late seventies, than either his parent’s social class or his own income.
While parenting pundits at various times in our history have worried that a household full of unwavering love and support could turn out a young man who was too coddled and dependent, the Grant Study found that abundant familial love, when coupled with an emphasis on autonomy and initiative, actually produced the most stoical (able to keep a stiff upper lip) and independent men. Such men, Vaillant explains, had learned to be comfortable with their feelings, and “that they could put their trust in life, which gave them courage to go out and face it.” In contrast, the men from the worst childhoods turned out to be the most dependent, and struggled with taking initiative.
Regarding a man’s relationship with his mother:
Not only did a man’s overall childhood experience greatly impact the rest of his life, but his mother and father each influenced it in a particular way. The Grant Study found that a warm relationship with his mother was significantly associated with a man’s:
*effectiveness at work
*maximum late-life income
*military rank at the end of WWII
*inclusion in Who’s Who
*IQ in college
*Verbal test scores
*Class rank in college
*Mental competence at age 80
On the flip side of that last point is the fact that “a poor relationship with his mother was very significantly, and very surprisingly, associated with dementia.” Men who lacked a warm relationship with their mothers were 3X more likely to get dementia in their old age.
Regarding a man’s relationship with his father:
In the negative column, it “was not the men with poor mothering but the ones with poor fathering who were significantly more likely to have poor marriages over their lifetimes.” Men who lacked a positive relationship with their fathers were also “much more likely to call themselves pessimists and to report having trouble letting others get close.”
If there was ever any doubt, fathers matter, a lot: When all is said and done, a man’s relationship with his father very significantly predicted his overall life satisfaction at age 75 — “a variable not even suggestively associated with the maternal relationship.”
Happy marriages are extremely important to men’s success:
“All of the fifty-five Best Outcomes had gotten married relatively early and stayed married for most of their adult lives. (And by the time those men were eighty-five, we learned later, only one marriage had ended in divorce.) In contrast, among the seventy-eight Worst Outcomes, five had never married, and by seventy-five years of age, thirty-five (45 percent) of the marriages had ended in divorce. Proportionately three times as many of the Best Adjusted men enjoyed lifelong happy marriages as the Worst.”
(There is a very large discussion on marriage, and I urge you to read the attached article for more on the importance of a healthy marriage to overall happiness).
The importance of physical fitness:
…staying in shape, as we know, can strengthen our discipline, boost our minds, and impart metaphorical life lessons as to the importance of things like humility and consistency. It is perhaps for this reason that the participants’ performance in a physical test of endurance turned out to be a better predictor of their ability to form successful relationships than even of their health later in life. Exercise makes us better people.
What leads to a flourishing life has been debated and discussed for centuries. Is it your parents’ social class? It is a career with a high income? Is it the type of body you’re born with?
After decades of studying the scope of men’s lives from ages 18-90, Valliant’s answer is this: “Happiness is love. Full stop.” It’s really a conclusion all of us knew all along, but it helps to be reminded of it, and to see that it is backed up not only by intuition, but by nearly 80 years of research.
Character traits matter too, but even then their real importance is helping us replace a scattered narcissism with the steady maturity that leads to rewarding relationships. Perhaps it sounds cheesy, but we are ultimately here to love, and to be loved. Love leads to our ability to “put our trust in life” and the confidence to tackle our goals. Thus if we fill our lives with warm, rich relationships, all the other good stuff – career success, prestige, adventure – will be sure to follow.
This was one of the primary messages of the Savior, and it is one of the primary messages of modern-day prophets. Now we have a study that confirms it. 🙂