What if there was a study dedicated to unearthing the secrets to a happy and purposeful life? It would have to be conducted over the course of many decades, following the lives of real people from childhood until old age, in order to see how they changed and what they learned. And it would probably be too ambitious for anyone to actually undertake.
Only, a group of Harvard researchers did undertake it, producing a comprehensive, flesh-and-blood picture of some of life’s fundamental questions: how we grow and change, what we value as time goes on, and what is likely to make us happy and fulfilled.
The study, known as the Harvard Grant Study, has some limitations — it didn’t include women, for starters. Still, it provides an unrivaled glimpse into a subset of humanity, following 268 male Harvard undergraduates from the classes of 1938-1940 (now well into their 90s) for 75 years, collecting data on various aspects of their lives at regular intervals. And the conclusions are universal.
We spoke to George Vaillant, the Harvard psychiatrist who directed the study from 1972 to 2004 and wrote a book about it, in order to revisit the study’s findings. Below, five lessons from the Grant Study to apply to your own pursuit of a happier and more meaningful life.