What causes some people to live longer, better lives than others? The Grant Study sought to answer this very question.
The study is the most ambitious longitudinal (or long term) “study of human development ever undertaken,” said George Vaillant, the Harvard-based researcher and psychiatrist. The study began in 1938 with men who were studying at Harvard and inner city Boston residents. It followed them throughout their lives.
The researchers believed that the men’s childhoods were key. Thus, they focused on learning as much as they could about the early lives of the men involved in the study. This included the men’s relationships with their parents and siblings. The Grant Study revealed how much loving relationships can positively impact lives.
Loving Relationships in Childhood Impact the Lifetime
Some of the subjects of the study are still alive today. In fact, one-third of those who enjoyed warm, loving relationships as children are still alive today. Fewer than 15% of those who did not have such relationships still live.
Another relevant finding in this fascinating study was that a warm, loving household that invited men to have empathy and strong relationships led to happier, less lonely old ages. It stands to reason. People who experience healthy, loving relationships in their childhoods are more likely to replicate those quality relationships as they age. Healthy, loving relationships often extend through old age. The lessons learned from love-filled childhoods produce men who can form those kinds of relationships over a lifetime.
The researchers had many expectations of their results. They assumed that socioeconomic status during childhood would largely affect future happiness. The study found this to be untrue. Positive, warm relationships were more important to long-term happiness. Loving relationships were even more important to the child’s future financial success.
Good Relationships Combat Depression and Loneliness
Those experiencing significant love, termed “Cherished” by the researchers, were far less likely to be diagnosed with a mental illness, including drug and/or alcohol abuse. (Biological heredity was found to trump childhood home environment when it came to alcoholism, however.) Those experiencing significant absences of love, called “Loveless,” were highly likely to suffer mental health issues. In fact, fully half of the “Loveless” had suffered from such challenges by age 70. This shows quite clearly that childhood circumstances can be useful for predicting difficulties as someone ages.
Loneliness is a risk factor for many seniors that can cause higher and more severe incidences of depression and even suicide attempts. Loneliness was also found to be much higher in those men whose childhoods held less happiness and love. In old age, loneliness can stem out of poor parental relationships. Men with poor relationships with their fathers, for example, were found to be more pessimistic and have less life satisfaction as they aged. In contrast, those with positive paternal relationships experienced less anxiety. Happy people make those around them happy, fostering stronger relationships and experiencing less loneliness as they age. Unhappy people might have trouble creating loving relationships and are more at risk for loneliness.
How Relationships Affect Caregiving
The Grant Study offers some insights for caregivers. Many caregivers of the Baby Boomer generation are the adult children or younger relatives of the person they care for. They may not always know details about the childhood circumstances of the person. However, they can know more than a formal caregiver might. In addition, knowing that childhood experiences can produce somewhat predictable results and increase risk factors for certain conditions, a caregiver can act accordingly.
The Grant Study would indicate that talking with an elderly loved one about the person’s past can be very useful. This is not only a good and healthy mental exercise for the elderly person to guard against cognitive decline. It may also serve as an emotional barometer. An elderly loved one who recounts a warm, loving childhood most likely will be healthier than someone with scarred memories. If an elderly loved one shows signs of loneliness, depression, anxiety, or suicidal thoughts, a caregiver should talk to a doctor immediately. Yet some may have merely have lacked emotional support as children and need it in their waning years more than ever. A caregiver can help with that.
Just One Good Relationship Can Redeem a Lifetime of Sadness
Vaillant cites “play” as an important indicator of post-retirement happiness. The men who took advantage of vacation time and who saw retirement as a way to savor life were happy. Those who saw it as a time of darkness and descent were less so. Thus, a caregiver does well to have conversations about what the elderly loved one enjoys doing or always has wanted to do. Opening up post-65 life as a path towards doing those things contributes to the elderly loved one’s happiness.
In an article examining the Grant Study and Vaillant’s findings, New York Times columnist David Brooks notes that “the positive effect of one loving relative, mentor or friend can overwhelm” the bad parts of a life. If a caregiver can offer a spot of sunshine, understanding, and empathy, it may cancel out darker memories. This can extend life and brighten up outlooks, especially in conjunction with the above steps. Caregivers should learn to cope with their own negative emotions (particularly stress) and strive to bring joy to a loved one as the person ages.
Brooks, David. The Heart Grows Smarter. (November 5, 2012). The New York Times. Available at http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/06/opinion/brooks-the-heart-grows-smarter.html?_r=1. Retrieved October 14, 2016.
Cole, Diane. (May 19, 2013). A Way to Get Past Regrets. The Wall Street Journal. Available at http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424127887323735604578441002983611878. Retrieved October 14, 2016.
Vaillant, George. (November 1, 2013). Your Childhood Is Crucial to How You’ll Age. NextAvenue.org. Available at http://www.nextavenue.org/why-your-childhood-crucial-how-youll-age/. Retrieved October 14, 2016.
Vaillant, George E., Cui, Xing-jia, and Soldz, Stephen. The Study of Adult Development. Division of Psychiatry, Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Available at http://www.hms.harvard.edu/psych/redbook/redbook-family-adult-01.htm. Retrieved October 14, 2016.
Vaillant, George E. (October 2012). Triumphs of Experience: The Men of the Harvard Grant Study. Harvard University Press. Available at http://www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog.php?isbn=9780674059825&content=reviews. Retrieved October 14, 2016.