I recently read an article, “What are the Secrets to a Happy Life?” by George E. Vaillant that was summarized from the book he wrote, Triumphs of Experience: The Men of the Harvard Grant Study.
The Harvard Grant Study is the longest longitudinal study of biosocial human development ever undertaken, and follows the lives of 268 Harvard sophomores from 1938 to the present. The study’s goal was to identify the key factors to a happy and healthy life.
Vaillant writes that there are two key findings from the study. One is that happiness is love. The other is that people can change.
Camille was selected for the study at age 19 because he looked like he had a promising future, wanted to go into the ministry or become a physician. But ten years later, the impact of being raised in a dysfunctional home was manifested when he was diagnosed as an unhappy hypochondriac who attempted to commit suicide. His future looked very bleak, and the study ranked him as destined for failure.
When he was 35, he was bedridden for a year with an illness. During this time, for the first time he felt cared for, something he missed growing up. The articles says, “Camille felt his time in the hospital almost like a religious rebirth. “Someone with a capital ‘S’ cared about me,” he wrote.” He described how he had experienced a personal encounter with Jesus in the hospital—a visitation—that was the turning point for everything in his life.
Framing this in another light, it seems like Camille suffered from attachment pain, which sapped his capacity for serving as a doctor and life in general. During his stay in the hospital, God used other people, and perhaps some intervention directly to show that God and others were glad to be with him, healing him from his attachment pain.
Quoting from the article, “Released from the hospital, Dr. Camille became an independent physician, married, and grew into a responsible father and clinic leader. His coping style changed as the decades passed. His transitional reliance on displacement (the unconscious avoidance of emotional intensity) was replaced by the still more empathetic involuntary coping mechanisms of altruism and generativity (a wish to nurture others’ development). He was now functioning as a giving adult. Whereas at 30 he had hated his dependent patients, by 40 his adolescent fantasy of caring for others had become a reality. In vivid contrast with his post-graduation panic, he now reported that what he liked most about medicine was that “I had problems and went to others, and now I enjoy people coming to me.”
“That convalescent year, transformative though it was, was not the end of Camille’s story. Once he grasped what had happened, he seized the ball and ran with it, straight into a developmental explosion that went on for 30 years. A professional awakening and a spiritual one; a wife and two children of his own; two psychoanalyses, a return to the church of his early years—all these allowed him to build for himself the loving surround that he had so missed as a child, and to give to others out of its riches.”
Vaillant writes, “a loving childhood—and other factors like emphatic capacity and warm relationships as a young adult—predicted later success ... What’s more, success in relationships was very highly correlated with both economic success and strong mental and physical health…In short, it was a history of warm intimate relationships—and the ability to foster them in maturity—that predicted flourishing in all aspects of these men’s lives.”
“So when it comes to late-life success—even when success is measured strictly in financial terms—the Grant Study finds that nurture trumps nature. And by far the most important influence on a flourishing life is love. Not early love exclusively, and not necessarily romantic love. But love early in life facilitates not only love later on, but also the other trappings of success, such as high income and prestige. It also encourages the development of coping styles that facilitate intimacy, as opposed to the ones that discourage it. The majority of the men who flourished found love before 30, and the data suggests that was why they flourished.”
“…happiness is only the cart; love is the horse …Before age 30, Camille depended on narcissistic hypochondriasis to cope with his life and his feelings; after 50 he used empathic altruism and a pragmatic stoicism about taking what comes. The two pillars of happiness revealed by the 75-year-old Grant Study—and exemplified by Dr. Godfrey Minot Camille—are love and a mature coping style that does not push love away.”