Are there social signposts that point to the good life?
Researchers at Harvard University have been examining this question for seven decades. They followed 268 male Harvard graduates, 456 socially disadvantaged inner city men and 90 middle-class, gifted women through early adulthood, midlife and old age.
“The paradox of life is that the past may predict but never determines old age,” writes Dr. George Vaillant, the study’s longtime director.
Vaillant is a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and director of the Harvard Study of Human Development – a job he has held for the past 35 years.
In Aging Well (Little, Brown and Company), Vaillant shares the study’s surprising findings:
It is not the bad things that happen to us that doom us; it is the good people who happen to us along the way that facilitate enjoyable old age.
Mature defenses or the capacity to turn lemons into lemonade and not to turn molehills into mountains are essential to aging well.
In old age, it is all right to be ill as long as you do not feel sick.
The concept of generativity or giving back is key to successful aging.
Human beings outgrow and recover from restrictive environments. In the absence of physical illness, mental health improves into the seventh decade.
In the aging game, emotional riches trump financial savings.
A good marriage at age 50 predicted positive aging at 80. But low cholesterol levels at age 50 did not predict positive aging at 80.
Aging well is facilitated by a capacity for gratitude.
An openness to the “new” and a willingness to take on challenges is correlated with psychological health.
Living successfully means understanding death is part of the journey.
Vaillant concludes: “Viewed from the perspective of a 50-year study, the maturation of great human beings becomes as marvelous as the birth of a child.”