Darling, on your 60th birthday, after 35 years of a flourishing marriage, I love everything about you, but, honestly, I hardly know you. I thought I knew you. I know you better than anyone else, but I thought I knew lots of people well—until I read George Vaillant’s Triumphs of Experience . Now it’s clear. We don’t know nobody. No wonder you keep surprising me.
If I stop and think about all the ways I could know you but don’t, it can ruin my day. Imagine if, in addition to seeing, smelling, touching, tasting, hearing, laughing, fighting, loving, playing, and working with you, I could also know you in other ways. What if I had at my fingertips your lifelong medical history, financial profile, and family tree? What if I had your annotated archive of every picture and every home video taken of you? Imagine if I had a record of your annual conversations over the past 40 years with your biographer and confidant on the big issues of each year of your life: challenges to your faith, your physical and emotional well-being, your use of alcohol and drugs, your longings for your closest relationships, your most prized accomplishments, your frustrations and humiliations, your guiding fantasies and fears. Imagine if someone paid me to collect all this, study it, and present your life as it can be known in this way. Instead I have my haphazard collection of selected impressions from our lives—an attic, instead of a library, tended only by my flimsy memory.
Most of us will never come close to the biographer’s privilege of knowing anyone in more than a few of these ways. But one person on this planet, George Vaillant, has achieved a close approximation of the biographer’s privilege with 268 people, and he’s written a fascinating account of this process in Triumphs of Experience.
George Vaillant, MD, started working on the Harvard Study of Adult Development in 1966 at the age of 32, studying a cohort of 268 men who had been recruited in the early 1940’s and followed every few years since then with a variety of questionnaires and interviews, physical exams and lab work, all aimed at the broad question of what makes for successful adaptation across the life cycle. In 2012 when he published this account he was seventy eight, and the surviving men in the study are now in their 90’s. For forty five years Vaillant directed this study, which is now the longest running longitudinal study to collect both medical and psychosocial data. Among the handful of other longitudinal studies of adult development, the Harvard Study has maintained the highest number of contacts with its subjects and had the lowest attrition rate. The Study has been the source for 11 books and over 130 scientific publications.
Vaillant’s harvests from this study have provided the staples for his career in academic psychiatry. In this book he passes on the lessons he’s learned about adult development that only a lifelong longitudinal study can reveal. The first chapter is titled “Maturation Makes Liars of Us All,” a confession that self-delusion and false impressions are common, even among enlightened and educated study subjects and investigators. The subjects sometimes deny, repress, or forget what pains them most. Investigators sometimes ignore facts that defy their hypotheses. Vaillant admits that “many of the early findings of the Study are ill-conceived, our-of-date, and parochial.” But systematic prospective collection and analyses of biographical data eventually expose the truth about these mistakes. Prospective studies, he says, “really do elucidate life’s mysteries.”
Of the seven lessons he highlights in Chapter 3 as the main findings of the Study, perhaps the most surprising, given the early focus of the Study on such predictors of success as body type, social class, and academic performance, is that “the most important influence by far on a flourishing life is love. Not early love exclusively, and not necessarily romantic love….The majority of the men who flourished found love before thirty.”
Darling, I may not know you the way George could have, but I’m glad I found you before thirty.