What Leads to a Fulfilling Life and Good Health?

Some time ago, I saw a TED Talk about a fascinating decades-long study that focused on this: What is correlated with mental/physical health and a fulfilling life?

Recently, a post on social media spurred me to look again at it. Intrigued, I purchased a book that one of the study’s directors wrote.

Known as the “Grant Study,” the project is longitudinal and tracks hundreds of subjects, starting when they were in college. Today, some people are in their 90s, and the study now tracks their children. It is amazing: a study that started in the 1930s and is still going on.

The researchers were/are very thorough:

  • Interviewed the subjects at length, as well as their parents during home visits. Later in life, researchers interviewed their spouses and children. I mean, the interviews and questionnaires were extremely detailed, covering all sorts of pretty intimate personal details
  • Reviewed their medical records and received continuous updates over the decades
  • Followed up regularly with the subjects via in-person interviews and questionnaires to ask all sorts of questions

Now, the study has flaws: The subjects were all male, white and from the U.S. They comprise a narrow subset of the population, a group of Harvard College students from a very different era. You can argue about self-reported data. But, as a social sciences study, this is pretty incredible. And, 40% of the students were on financial aid, and so, they tried for that time to broaden the group’s profile.

The results are interesting. Here is a paraphrased summary from Wikipedia:

  • Alcoholism is a disorder of great destructive power.
    • Alcoholism was the main cause of divorce between the Grant Study men and their wives.
    • Strongly correlates with neurosis and depression, which tended to follow alcohol abuse, rather than precede it.
    • Together with associated cigarette smoking, was the single greatest contributor to their early morbidity and death.
  • Financial success depends on warmth of relationships and, above a certain level, not on intelligence.
    • Those who scored highest on measurements of “warm relationships” earned significantly more income.
    • No significant difference in maximum income earned by men with IQs in the 110–115 range and men with IQs higher than 150.
  • The warmth of childhood relationship with mothers matters long into adulthood.
    • Men who had “warm” childhood relationships with their mothers earned more than men whose mothers were uncaring.
    • Men who had poor childhood relationships with their mothers were much more likely to develop dementia when old.
    • Late in their professional lives, the men’s boyhood relationships with their mothers—but not with their fathers—were associated with effectiveness at work.
    • The warmth of childhood relationships with mothers had no significant bearing on “life satisfaction” at 75.
  • The warmth of childhood relationship with fathers correlated with:
    • Lower rates of adult anxiety.
    • Greater enjoyment of vacations.
    • Increased “life satisfaction” at age 75.
  • The main conclusion is that “warmth of relationships throughout life has the greatest positive impact on ‘life satisfaction.'” Put differently, the study shows: “Happiness is love. Full stop.”

Now, let’s talk about parents. The book very clearly articulated that the presence of a cold/distant parent did not doom its subjects. Warm relationships with parents helped greatly, but cold relationships weren’t a curse. In fact, the study chronicled quite a few subjects who later in life were able to work through the lack of emotionally-rich parenting.

If you’re interested in learning more, here is a link to the book. The TED Talk is below.

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