Summary of Triumphs of Experience: The Men of the Harvard Grant Study

Triumphs of Experience: The Men of the Harvard Grant Study

A Harvard study followed 268 undergraduates from the classes of 1938-1940 for 75 years, regularly collecting data on various aspects of their lives. The findings were reported in this recent book by the Harvard psychiatrist George Vaillant.

Here are five lessons from the study pertaining to a happy and meaningful life. First, the most important ingredient for meaning and happiness is loving relationships. Even individuals with successful careers and good physical health were not fulfilled without loving relationships. Second, money and power are small parts of a fulfilling life; they correlate poorly with happiness. Those most proud of their achievements are those most content in their work, not the ones who make the most money. Third, we can become happier in life as we proceed through it, despite how we started our lives. Fourth, connection with others and work is essential for joy; and this seems to be increasingly true as one ages. Finally, coping well with challenges makes you happier. The key is to replace narcissism with mature coping mechanisms like concerns for others and productive work.

Noteworthy is that these findings overlap almost perfectly with what Victor Frankl’s discovered about the meaningful life in his classic: Man’s Search for Meaning. Frankl says we find meaning through: 1) personal relationships, 2) productive work, and 3) by nobly enduring suffering. The only difference is that Frankl doesn’t talk specifically about money, although no doubt he would agree that it is of secondary concern. Also noteworthy is how the findings of Vaillant and Frankl agree with modern happiness research. Here are just a few of the excellent books whose social science research supports these basic findings.

The How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want

Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being

Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience


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1 thought on “Summary of Triumphs of Experience: The Men of the Harvard Grant Study

  1. A good idea is to search for the sources of one’s unhappiness, unless is it quite obvious as in Frankl’s book when everything that might provide happiness is taken from the concentration victims. Many unhappy people can find some purpose that is meaningful, but unhappiness, guilt, shame will continue for those who do not understand the sources of these feelings. A serious examination of one’s early life experiences, the wounds that may or must have occurred and which most humans conceal with defenses, is a good start because it is not the wounds endured, it is how we defended ourselves from their recurrence by utilizing our unique defenses that get us into trouble. we must dig deep to isolate the problematic defenses we continue to use and which continue to bring us unhappiness. In a brief phrase, it is not the wounds or hurts done to us but the defenses that continue to harm us because they have become part of the way we address life. The defenses must go…!

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