Thursday, November 19, 2009

It's No Seven-Up, But It's Fascinating

The most comprehensive longitudinal studies in the United States began in the 1940's at Harvard. Arlie Bock started surveying men as early as 1937 to see what made them normal, healthy men. The study is comprised of 268 men from the Harvard classes of 1942, 1943, and 1944. One of these men was president, four have run for Senate, and one took a spill while drunk and died. The study was designed to determine what factors lead to a normal life, normal being sort of loosely, 1940ishly, Harvardly defined as being stable enough to be successful. Totally problematic, but interesting nonetheless in that it was one of the first studies of its kind to focus on what makes people live a long, healthy, and perhaps happy life.

From the time of the study's inception, the 268 men annually undergo a physical examination and answer survey questions. Quite a bit of work, right? The study has been running under the leadership of George Vaillant, who took it over in 1967 when it was barely surviving. His charismatic approach to the study, it seems, has contributed to the study's survival of seventy-two years, which is also Vaillant's age. He's written two books about the study, Adaptation to Life (1977) and Aging Well (2002). Although he is now in an ancillary position, he still seems deeply affected by the lives of these men, focusing on the story of their lives as a way of understanding what it means to be able to live a well-adjusted life. A small number of them are still living, in their 80's, but most of them are deceased. Many of the men, 80% of them, fought in World War II, most of them apparently seeing heavy combat, so the study has been a useful tool for understanding PTSD.

I first read about this study in the June 2009 issue of the Atlantic, in an article entitled, "What Makes Us Happy?" written by Joshua Wolf Shenk. (He's the author of Lincoln's Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness). The article is written so well that I would hope Mr. Shenk would write the definitive book about this Harvard study. Mr. Shenk sifted through the thick records and directly addresses some of these anonymous men while reporting on the history of the study and study's potential findings. I leave you with one of the addresses, but first want to take a moment, let it settle in a bit, to think about what it means to study someone's lifetime, their life span. Vaillant's approach is very clinical, regardless of how touched or influenced he is by these men's lives, and he says, "...when someone dies, I finally know what happened to them." It's a weird truth, hard to stomach, and he's had to do it so many times.

Joshua Wolf Shenk, to Case No. 47:
"You ducked the war, as a conscientious objector. 'I've answered a great many questions,' you wrote in your 1946 survey. 'Now I'd like to ask you people a couple of questions. By what standards of reason are you calling people 'adjusted' these days?' ...You married young and did odd jobs... You said you wanted to be a writer, but that looked like a distant dream. You started drinking. ...By 1964 you wrote, 'Really tie one on about twice a week...' ...'I've never been more productive, and I'm a little wary of rocking the boat right now by going on a clean living kick...' ...In the early 1970's Dr. Vaillant came to see you in your small apartment... ...You told Dr. Vaillant he should read Joseph Heller on the unrelieved tragedy of conventionally successful businessmen. ...You went on to a very productive career, and became an important figure in the gay-rights movement. ...You died at age 64, when you fell down the stairs of your apartment building."


Dan Magers said...

I was tipped off to the the Atlantic article through a David Brooks column(embarrassingly enough) over the summer. It was a terrific read that spanned over two lunch breaks at the office. Thanks for reminding me of it.

Farrah Field said...

Your welcome. Did you know the famous person that went unnamed in the article was Eugene O'Neil? Pretty cool...

Farrah Field said...

Sorry. You're. I did that the other day too.