Monday, June 15, 2009
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.[...]
Arlie Bock conceived the project with his patron, the department-store magnate W. T. Grant. Writing in September 1938, Bock declared that medical research paid too much attention to sick people; that dividing the body up into symptoms and diseases—and viewing it through the lenses of a hundred micro-specialties—could never shed light on the urgent question of how, on the whole, to live well.
Exhaustive medical exams noted everything from major organ function, to the measure of lactic acid after five minutes on a treadmill, to the size of the “lip seam” and the hanging length of the scrotum. Using a new test called the electroencephalograph, the study measured the electrical activity in the brain, and sought to deduce character from the squiggles. During a home visit, a social worker took not only a boy’s history—when he stopped wetting his bed, how he learned about sex—but also extensive medical and social histories on his parents and extended family. The boys interpreted Rorschach inkblots, submitted handwriting samples for analysis, and talked extensively with psychiatrists. They stripped naked so that every dimension of their bodies could be measured for “anthropometric” analysis, a kind of whole-body phrenology based on the premise that stock character types could be seen from body proportions. [...]
Four members of the sample ran for the U.S. Senate. One served in a presidential Cabinet, and one was president. There was a best-selling novelist (not, Vaillant has revealed, Norman Mailer, Harvard class of ’43). But hidden amid the shimmering successes were darker hues. As early as 1948, 20 members of the group displayed severe psychiatric difficulties. [...]
The Grant Study men remain anonymous. (Even the numbers on the case studies have been changed.) A handful have publicly identified themselves—including Ben Bradlee, the longtime editor of The Washington Post, who opened his memoir, A Good Life, with his first trip to the study office. John F. Kennedy was a Grant Study man, too, though his files were long ago withdrawn from the study office and sealed until 2040.
The Atlantic | What Makes Us Happy?