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Adaption To Life

Updated: Feb 2, 2022

As we live through a global pandemic and a national crisis, the men of the "Grant Study" inform and inspire. They served and suffered in World War II, and George E. Vaillant, M.D. eloquently writes of the men in a trilogy of books. They are Adaptation to Life, Aging Well, and Triumphs of Experience. The books tell us of the men from their college years at Harvard University to their passing.

My Fortunate First Read


I read of Dr. Vaillant in 1977 in the midst of my psychiatric training. I kept a copy of the article, which was an interview and a profile of Dr. Vaillant. A photograph of the young Dr. Vaillant tells me that a good looking young man can become a distinguished professor emeritus as Dr. Vaillant appears in a Ted Talk

In an article by Howard Munson in "Psychology Today", Dr. Vaillant offers an answer to the question, "What were the biggest surprises of "The Grant Study"? He responded "I expected to find people who were in no trouble at all. I did not know people like that. There was nobody whose life wasn't at times filled with enough pain to send him to a psychiatrist. Life is difficult for everyone, and that is not readily apparent.

"The Grant Study" Beginnings

In an article in "The Atlantic" in 2009, Joshua Wolf Shenk quotes Dr. Vaillant regarding being given access to "The Grant Study", "I have the keys to Fort Knox."

Describing the initiation of "The Grant Study", Mr. Shenk writes of an assembled "team that spanned medicine, psychology. anthropology, psychiatry and social work..." The team studied 268 males who at the time were seen as likely to "paddle their own canoe" through life and do quite well.

Many contributed to the great achievements of "The Grant Study", including the subjects who maintained remarkable fidelity to the project. Dr. Vaillant directed the study for four and one-half decades, finding one benefactor after another to fund the study. The team gathered an enormous amount of data without modern technology.

Adding to "The Grant Study", Dr. Vaillant folded in other research of decades-long studies. He included them in what now is called "The Harvard Study of Adult Development". He added "The Glueck Study" of 458 Boston Massachusetts inner-city boys of the 1930's and "The Terman Study" of intellectually gifted girls who were students in Oakland, California in the 1920's.

Lessons for Us

By the time the men of "The Grant Study" came to the fullness of their middle years, five characteristics distinguished their coping or adaptation styles. These characteristics lead to happiness and success.

  • Anticipation or looking ahead

  • Suppression or the ability to persevere

  • Sublimation or channeling emotions in work, art, sports, music, cooking

  • Humor or sharing laughter and fun with loved ones and friends

  • Altruism or taking responsibility for the well-being of others

In the last of the trilogy, Triumphs of Experience, Dr. Vaillant summarized the study's "three greatest contributions".

"The first contribution is the absoluteness of the study's demonstration that adult development continues long after adolescence, that character is not set in plaster and that people do change. Even hopeless midlife can blossom into a joyous old age. Such dramatic transformations are invisible to pencil and paper expirations, or even 10-year studies of adult development.

Second in all the world literature, there is no other study of lifetime alcohol abuse as long and as thorough as this one.

Third, the study's identification in the charting of involuntary coping mechanisms has given us at once a useful clinical tool, a route to empathy for initially unlikeable people, and a powerful predictor of a future. Without this long study, I have realized the importance of the maturation of defenses would still be out of fashion, dismissed as a relic of failed psychoanalytic metaphysics."

The men of "The Grant Study" tell us that we can grow, develop, change, mature and adapt throughout our lives.

Never revealing the names of those studied, Dr. Vaillant brilliantly weaves biographies together to educate and inspire. He gives us a roadmap to health, productivity, and wellbeing.

Some of the men of "The Grant Study" rose to distinction and greatness. At least two of the subjects are known by name - Benjamin C. Bradlee, long the executive editor of The Washington Post, and his good friend, the 35th president of the United States, John F. Kennedy.

Passing on the Wisdom

Dr. Vaillant's successor, Robert J. Waldinger, M.D. speaks to the wisdom of "The Grant Study" in a Ted Talk entitled, "What Makes a Good Life? Lessons from the Longest Study on Happiness."

Please note the link to the Harvard Study on Adult Development website*.

How important is "The Grant Study" to me? It is very, both professionally and personally. I often speak to it with my patients, particularly of the five coping or adaptation styles.

My wife, Mary Elizabeth, and I have three children. I am careful not to assume that my children will want to possess in their personal libraries books I egocentrically think are worthy of possession. I gave my three children in their young adulthood Adaptation to Life, Aging Well, and Triumphs of Experience.

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