What Makes Us Happy
by Joshua Wolf Shenk
Last fall, I spent about a month in the file room of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, hoping to learn the secrets of the good life. The project is one of the longest-running—and probably the most exhaustive—longitudinal studies of mental and physical well-being in history. Begun in 1937 as a study of healthy, well-adjusted Harvard sophomores (all male), it has followed its subjects for more than 70 years.
From their days of bull sessions in Cambridge to their active duty in World War II, through marriages and divorces, professional advancement and collapse—and now well into retirement—the men have submitted to regular medical exams, taken psychological tests, returned questionnaires, and sat for interviews. The files holding the data are as thick as unabridged dictionaries. They sit in a wall of locked cabinets in an office suite behind Fenway Park in Boston, in a plain room with beige carpeting and fluorescent lights that is littered with the detritus of many decades of social-scientific inquiry: a pile of enormous spreadsheet data books; a 1970s-era typewriter; a Macintosh PowerBook, circa 1993. All that’s missing are the IBM punch cards used to analyze the data in the early days.
For 42 years, the psychiatrist George Vaillant has been the chief curator of these lives, the chief investigator of their experiences, and the chief analyst of their lessons. His own life has been so woven into the study—and the study has become such a creature of his mind—that neither can be understood without the other. As Vaillant nears retirement (he’s now 74), and the study survivors approach death—the roughly half still living are in their late 80s—it’s a good time to examine both, and to do so, I was granted unprecedented access to case files ordinarily restricted to researchers.