Psychiatrist George Vaillant on secrets to a long life and a bigger salary

In conversation with Charlie Gillis

The secrets to a long life and a bigger salary—and why nice guys do finish first

Roman Cho/Getty Images

Harvard psychiatrist George Vaillant is a key figure in one of the most remarkable inquiries into human development ever undertaken. The Grant Study into Adult Development began in 1938 to follow the health, happiness and fortunes of 268 male Harvard students, and goes on to this day. Thirty per cent of the men have lived past the age of 90, allowing unprecedented insight into the sources of, and threats to, their longevity, from alcoholism to love. Vaillant, now 78, directed the study for 32 years and recently published his third book on it, Triumphs of Experience.

Q: The Grant Study is the story of many lives, but also the story of yours. What drew you to it?

A: The surprising things you find out about people if you follow them for long enough. When I was a resident, I had discovered some schizophrenics who had gotten well. So when I came back to [Harvard], I asked if I could interview some of the men who had had schizophrenia in college, when they came for their 25-year reunion. They said they didn’t have a health service 25 years ago, but they did have this study. So rather reluctantly, I began studying these normal men, and it was like a soap opera—fascinating.

Q: Who were the “College Men”?

A: They were Harvard sophomores, who came of age just in time to serve in the Second World War—the graduating classes of 1942 to ’44. Some were born with silver spoons, but overall they were much less prosperous than one would have thought. About half worked their way through school or were on scholarship, or both.

Q: Some went on to play major roles in American public life.

A: Four ran for Senate, we had one bestselling novelist, a few modest captains of industry. The bulk were lawyers and doctors, and most who went into business eventually ran their own show, often smaller businesses. These men weren’t on the covers of magazines.

Q: You also had a president. With help from Google, I learned it was John F. Kennedy.

A: I never saw his personal record. It was duly sealed at the university archives, and a very enterprising reporter from The Atlantic eventually found it. We bent over backwards to conceal the men’s identities.

Q: A lot of people will wonder how illuminating can it be to follow the lives of gifted and, in many cases, privileged white males.

A: The first thing anybody says, is [that] the sample is too small and they’re all white and all men. But if you want to study something in biology, you don’t want Noah’s Ark. It’s the same with people. Also, if you’re trying to understand the aging process, alcoholism and other things, it’s much better if the people who are aging don’t all die off. You’d expect only three per cent of a random sampling of American men to live to 90. When you get a group picked when they’re 18 years old, 30 per cent of whom live to 90, then you’re onto something quite useful.

Q: What, then, are the great lessons to be drawn from the study?

A: Some of the most important ones involved alcoholism. About 50 per cent of alcoholics recover, but a remarkable percentage of those do so with AA. The fact that this study followed up with these men on 60 different occasions with regard to their alcoholism over a period of 50 years did allow us to identify what made a difference. We learned which came first on a lot of chicken-and-egg questions. Everybody believes that if you do crossword puzzles you won’t get Alzheimer’s. Or that if you exercise enough you won’t get heart disease. They’re looking at short-term studies.When you have a full record, you find that people who are getting Alzheimer’s stop doing crossword puzzles, and people who are healthy are still exercising 10 years later.

Another example: the men’s cholesterol levels at 50 had no bearing on how long they lived; on the other hand, good marriages did predict longevity. Avoiding smoking and not abusing alcohol were by far the most important things you could do [to live longer].

Q: You mention marriage. I was struck by the importance of love, warmth and close relationships as to whether a person flourishes.

A: What surprised me was being able to show it. It’s easy to say love is important. Psychologists have been trumpeting this with one or two-year studies. But it turns out positive psychology, positive emotions, are of tremendous importance.

Q: Right down to how much money we make. What does love have to do with our salary?

A: Well, one way to sum up the importance of income as a gauge of who a man or woman is is to say we’re paid for being useful to others—greedy billionaires aside. Then suddenly income becomes a reflection of social responsibility and basic usefulness to people. If someone is nice to have around, maybe you don’t fire them. Maybe you give them additional responsibilities. It’s true that you can make a lot money if you’re a drug dealer, but you might end up dead. So if you’re doing a long-term study, you’d conclude that selfishness is less well-paid than generosity to others. And you learn generosity to others by people treating you well.

Q: You say what goes right in a person’s life matters a lot more than what goes wrong. What do you mean by that?

A: Thirty years down the pipe, belonging to a multi-problem family in childhood wasn’t bad if you had one or two members of the family—father, mother or siblings—you were really close to. What I consider to be the $64,000 question, one the book doesn’t answer, is why some people are so good at letting life in. Why do some people have such good digestion and metabolism for love, while some people are prickly and push it away? Probably the most important disease—short of schizophrenia—for pushing love away is alcoholism.

Q: It could take years for these phenomena to reveal themselves. You illustrate this with the story of “Art Miller,” who served in the war and became a prominent drama professor, then disappeared in 1960.

A: This is why the study is so fascinating: you have this man who appeared to be passive-aggressive, selfish. He dropped out of contact with his family and with Harvard. By contacting his elderly mother after he’d been lost for 20 years, I located him in Australia, where he was teaching theatre to high school students. He had a new family, and children.

Q: What happened?

A: Well, some of the men had returned from the Second World War with PTSD, but Art Miller seemed to have none of that. He had reported that he saw no heavy combat, and we didn’t know better until the former study director found records in the veterans’ archives showing that he’d had perfectly terrible combat experience, that he’d been hospitalized, that for days on end he’d been curled into a fetal position every time a car backfired, and had no recollection of that time. He’d come back to the U.S. seemingly as a drifter, and the reason we called him Art Miller was that, like the playwright Arthur Miller, he had a terrible life that he turned into an interest in theatre. But he had to do that in a world that had no ties to his past. He became a valuable human being. It was this unravelling of what was behind behaviour that showed the strength of the study.

Q: A lot of long-held theories flew out the window over the decades thanks to your work.

A: One of the simplest examples was the notion that unhappy childhoods cause alcoholism. What a study like this shows is that, first, lots of alcoholics invent an unhappy childhood to justify their drinking. Second: if an alcoholic’s childhood is miserable, it’s because a blood relative has alcoholism. If the unhappy childhood is the result of an alcoholic step-parent, the person doesn’t drink to relieve the misery. So it’s the genetic component of alcoholism that matters.

Q: You argue that alcohol abuse is the most ignored causal factor in modern social science. Why?

A: Because it’s much more fun to pay mind to nice people than to angry, passive-aggressive people, and the disease of alcoholism makes people angry and dishonest. If you look at the major books on marriage, alcoholism is mentioned nowhere in the index as a cause of unhappiness. Yet 57 per cent of all the divorces in the Harvard sample occurred when one or other spouse were drinking alcoholically. The alcohol abuse almost always preceded the trouble in the men’s life. Another dramatic example: depression does not lead to alcoholism, whereas alcoholism leads to depression. If you take 100 cases, you can find two or three exceptions, but that’s all. People didn’t really know that before the Grant study.

Q: Your son, John Vaillant, lives in Vancouver and is the author of The Golden Spruce, which won the 2005 Governor General’s Award for non-fiction. I guess it’s safe to assume he was raised with a lot of love and warmth.

A: (Laughing) Well, you’d have to ask him. Let’s say he was very resilient, and if you’d talked to John’s English teachers, or looked at his high school transcripts, or knew that he’d worked as a salmon fisherman in northern Alaska in his 20s, you’d never think that he’d have become such a brilliant writer. I guess it shows that genes do influence us, too.

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