The magic formula for flourishing

In 1938, a group of researchers began an intensive study of 268 students at Harvard University. The plan was to track them through their entire lives, measuring, testing and interviewing them every few years to see how lives develop.

As this study — the Grant Study — progressed, the power of relationships became clear. Body type was useless as a predictor of how the men would fare in life. So was birth order or political affiliation. Even social class had a limited effect. But having a warm childhood was powerful. As George Vaillant, the study director, sums it up in “Triumphs of Experience,” his most recent summary of the research, “It was the capacity for intimate relationships that predicted flourishing in all aspects of these men’s lives.”

It’s not that the men who flourished had perfect childhoods. Rather, as Vaillant puts it, “What goes right is more important than what goes wrong.” The positive effect of one loving relative, mentor or friend can overwhelm the negative effects of the bad things that happen.

In case after case, the magic formula is capacity for intimacy combined with persistence, discipline, order and dependability.

But a childhood does not totally determine a life. The big finding is that you can teach an old dog new tricks. The men kept changing all the way through, even in their 80s and 90s.

The men of the Grant Study frequently became more emotionally attuned as they aged, more adept at recognizing and expressing emotion.

David Brooks writing in the New York Times