Sunday, 7 May 2017

Leading a Happy, Healthy Life

The Harvard Study of Adult Development has run for over 78 years. It began in 1938 as the W.T.Grant Study. Independently the Glueck study began the following year.

The W.T.Grant study of 268 elite men from Harvard, was intended to confirm the best ways of selecting managers for business or officers for the military. Both business and the military chose senior staff based on many desirable characteristics. In the course of fifty years the study proved that NONE of those characteristics have any predictive value. The list desirable characteristics in new leaders, still used today in most situations, are misleading. We usually choose the wrong people.

The Glueck Study, was of 456 young men from inner city Boston, men from the wrong side of the tracks mostly.

These two studies have become the Harvard Study of Adult Development — a study that has tracked the lives of 724 men, and is one of the longest studies of adult life ever done. Investigators surveyed the group every two years about their physical and mental health, their professional lives, their friendships, their marriages — and also subjected them to periodic in-person interviews, medical exams, blood tests and brain scans.

Eighty years ago people believed that once one became "adult" that development ceased. That's not so, we continue to develop and grow throughout out lives. The previous director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, was Dr George Vaillant. His most recent book is "Triumphs of Experience." Vaillant tells us that when he was 30, he became the director of the study. The men were 55-56 and Vaillant assumed that these men were already at the peak of their careers, and that their lives were already beginning to wind down. He admits that the next 30 years were to prove that he knew very little.

The present director of the study, is psychiatrist Robert J. Waldinger, he shared some of the major lessons in a popular TED Talk (What makes a good life? Lessons from the longest study on happiness). He says, "the government has invested millions of dollars in the research, but few people know anything about it."

The big takeaways from that talk: Good relationships keep us happier and healthier, and loneliness kills.

1. A happy childhood has very, very long-lasting effects.

Having warm relationships with parents in childhood was a good predictor that you'll have warmer and more secure relationships with those closest to you when you're an adult. Happy childhoods had the power to extend across decades to predict more secure relationships that people had with their spouses in their 80s, as well as better physical health in adulthood all the way into old age.

It took fifty years to show that the only predictive characteristic of effective leaders is very simple. As a child, did he have a strong loving relationship with his mother? It took even longer to expose the abuse of alcohol as the leading cause of divorces and professional or business failures.

And it's not just parental bonds that matter: Having a close relationship with at least one sibling in childhood predicted which people were less likely to become depressed by age 50.

2. But … people with difficult childhoods can make up for them in midlife.

People who grow up in challenging environments — with chaotic families or economic uncertainty, for instance — grew old less happily than those who had more fortunate childhoods. But by the time people reached middle age (defined as ages 50–65), those who engaged in what psychologists call "generativity," or an interest in establishing and guiding the next generation, were happier and better adjusted than those who didn't.

An unhappy childhood is a big barrier. But it's possible by choosing the right life partner, and by learning to love through your children, to heal the wounds of the past.

3. Learning how to cope well with stress has a lifelong payoff.

We all develop personal ways of managing stress and relieving anxiety, and Waldinger and his team have found that some ways can have greater long-term benefits than others. Forty years ago George Vaillant, began an assessment of the psychological defence's that the men adopted. (Thirty years into the study, it was clear that, exam results, physical fitness, popularity, or more than 50 other measures of leadership had no value in selecting leaders.) Vaillant was confident that psychology would provide the answer, and that men who had more "mature defensive strategies" would prove to be the best leaders.

To be very brief: those who a habit of using "mature defenses" like sublimation (example: you feel unfairly treated by your employer, so you start an organization that helps protect workers rights), altruism (you struggle with addiction and help stay sober by being a sponsor for other addicts), and suppression (you're worried about job cuts at your company but put those worries out of mind until you can do something to plan for the future). These superior behaviours create a cascade of beneficial effects: It made them easier for others to be with, which made people want to help them and led to more social support, and that, in turn, predicted healthier aging in their 60s and 70s. (But to Vaillant's disappointment this promising approach also failed to predict the best future leaders.)

Everyone uses "mature defenses" on our good days. But most days we tend to use less elegant ways of coping with life. Vaillant calls these "neurotic defenses." (Neurotic is not used meaning madness, in this context neurotic is NORMAL.) He means it's normal to worry, and it's normal to be uncertain, and it's normal to change your mind frequently. So we make excuses, we work too hard, and we blame others, and we judge ourselves by one standard an others by a different standard. We know things are not perfect, but we find ways to get by, and do our best to hold our end up.

Maladaptive coping strategies include denial, acting out, excessive drug use, psychosis, or projection. Vaillant calls those strategies "immature defenses." Everyone used to use immature defenses while growing up. When a teenager does it, it annoys parents, and teachers and perhaps the community. The defence is "perfect" for the young person, the behaviors put all the "blame" elsewhere, it's not "me" that's causing a problem. So drug abuse, sexual misconduct, dishonesty, lying, anger outbursts, in a young person's life are disruptive, but we get by. If a 30 year old is behaving in the same way, that's a different story.

4. Time with others protects us from the bruises of life's ups and downs.

Waldinger has said "it's the quality of your relationships that matters" is one significant take away from the study. Looking back on their lives, people most often reported their time spent with others as most meaningful, and the part of their lives of which they were the proudest. Spending time with other people made study subjects happier on a day-to-day basis, and in particular, time with a partner or spouse seemed to buffer them against the mood dips that come with aging's physical pains and illnesses.

In Triumphs of Experience, George Vaillant explains how most people in their 70's and 80's are very happy in their marriages. Especially those who were able in their 50's and 60's to grow significantly in their ability to nurture younger people into leadership roles, were best equipped to develop new interests and activities that kept them engaged in interesting activities and involved with other people, late in life.

5. The Future of this Study?

Waldinger freely acknowledges how skewed their research group is — "it's the most politically incorrect sample you could possibly have; it's all white men!" (In fact, the group originally included John F. Kennedy.) With "only a handful" of the original subjects left to study, the Harvard team is now moving on to the men's 1,300 children who've agreed to participate (a group that's 51 percent female). But he's painfully aware that the proposed cuts to the National Institutes of Health could end even their long-running study. "Our kind of research might be one of the first projects to go. Our work is not urgent; it's not the cure for cancer or Alzheimer's," he says. "But we have a way of understanding human life that you can't get anywhere else and it lays the foundation for important, actionable things."

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