Grant Study: 6 Keys to Happiness From the Legendary Harvard Study


What makes us happy? The famous Grant Study, which followed 268 Harvard sophomore men for more than seven decades since 1938, reveals the long sought-after secrets to happiness. This unprecedented study measured and recorded just about everything, including physical and psychological fitness, family background, career development, marriages and divorces, and the famously all-important “hanging length of his scrotum.” Looking back in his recent book “Triumph of Experience”, George Vaillant, who has directed the study for more than three decades, finds it more than just a longitudinal record of individuals, but an incredibly insightful and complex literature in search of the true meaning of success, happiness, and life.

For millennials who are in their 20s and 30s, this study bears even more importance as a guide to life. The subjects —, “physically and mentally healthy” Harvard sophomores —, all started from more or less the same starting-line, but many of them became successful, happy, and led a full rewarding life (not necessarily at the same time), while others experienced failures, misery, and lonely and painful deaths. According tothe Atlantic, four of them ran for the U.S. Senate, one served in a presidential cabinet, and one was no other than John F. Kennedy (his file is on hold until 2040). On the other hand, “almost a third of the men had at one time or another met Vaillant’s criteria for mental illness” by the age of 50.

The following are the six most notable findings from the study that still need to be enunciated, for they are often overlooked. Some of the findings even refute our common sense:

1. Cigarettes really are that bad

Cigarette smoking was the single greatest contributor to early morbidity and death.

2. Drinking is best done in moderation

“Alcoholism is a disorder of great destructive power,” is the main cause of divorce.

3. Depression tended to precede alcoholism, not follow it

So that poor man didn’t become alcoholic because his wife left and he became depressed. He probably started drinking, which “helped drive his wife away.”

4. Money can't buy happiness ... or success

“Money and social class did little to determine who would be happy and successful.”

5. Childhood relationships matter a lot

Men who had “warm” childhood relationships with their mothers earned $87,000 more money a year, were more effective at work, and were less likely to develop dementia than men who didn’t. Men who had “warm” childhood relationships with their fathers were also more likely to show “lower rates of adult anxiety, greater enjoyment of vacations, and increased ‘life satisfaction’ at age 75.” Valliant sums up this point in five words: “Happiness is love. Full stop.”

6. Learning doesn't stop

The study also showed that personal development continued to the late years of life, defying the common notion that you cannot teach an old dog new tricks. These Harvard men’s “adaptations,” or “unconscious responses to pain, conflict, or uncertainty,” transformed throughout their life, often shifting from unhealthy to healthy. In adolescence, these men were twice as likely to use immature defenses, such as “acting out, passive aggression, hypochondria, projection, and fantasy,” as mature ones, such as “altruism, humor, anticipation, suppression, and sublimation.” However, in middle life, they were four times as likely to use mature defenses than immature ones. The progress continued, and between the ages of 50 and 75, altruism and humor grew more prevalent.   

So what can we take away from this study? Quit smoking, stop drinking, exercise, keep warm and healthy relations with your friends and family, and know that money doesn’t necessarily make you happy. But mostly importantly, keep in mind that you will transform and progress constantly until you die.