This evening I’m reading the fascinating results of what is arguably the most important study of the life and happiness of human beings ever done.
The Harvard Study of Adult Development began in 1938 when researches started following 268 young men (Harvard undergraduates) for the rest of their lives. In 1966 this study became the life work of Dr. George Vaillant (now 80) Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.
Some of the findings include:
- Alcoholism is a disorder of great destructive power
- Aging liberals (political) have way more sex
- A strong correlation of the warmth of your relationships and your health and happiness in your later years
- How significant men’s relationships with their mothers are in determining their well-being in life
In one of his book publicity interviews about the study, Vaillant joked, “Being a couch potato I was delighted to find that it’s good health that makes it possible to exercise at sixty, it isn’t the exercising at sixty that creates good health at eighty.” But in his own words, the #1 most important finding from this study is this:
“The seventy-five years and twenty million dollars expended on the study points to a straightforward five-word conclusion: Happiness is love. Full stop.”
When asked in an interview how he would apply this five-word conclusion to his own life, he said, “In part by not worrying more about myself but more about my children. I’ve been more interested in my successful career and less interested in just hanging out with them. And if I had it to do it over again, I would have spent more time with my children.”
Even when it’s almost too late, learning that “Happiness is love” is powerful and meaningful. But frankly, that doesn’t surprise me, and I’d be surprised if it did you. My first thought was, “Well, it doesn’t take seventy-five years and twenty million dollars to figure that one out. Of course, happiness is love.” So to learn more about what Vaillant considers to be his most significant findings, I began reading his book reviews, summaries, and listening to his interviews.
As a result I discovered what I consider to be the #1 most important finding from “Vaillant’s most important findings” about HOW happiness is love. (You may want to read that last sentence again for it to make sense.) This finding is not drawn primarily from his book, but from his post-writing interviews:
“Happiness is love. Full Stop” -especially shown by those who learned to: 1) “take love in”, and 2) “give love out.”
Now, again, I’m not surprised by the “give love out” finding. But it’s the “take love in” finding that intrigues me. Below is my transcript of one of Vaillant’s interviews I listened to tonight as he described one of the most important things HE learned through all these years of human research since 1968. He tells the story of one of his research subjects, a man who had a very difficult life into adulthood. But, after learning how to “take love in,” his whole life turned around ending very well with rich relationships. He said,
“One of the lessons and mysteries of the study is that probably the greatest human skill you can have is the ability to take love in and metabolize it. That’s how you grow. Nobody knows a lot about that.“
Now this statement grabbed my attention. And it makes me want to explore more deeply what it means for someone (especially me) to “take love in and metabolize it.” Why? Mostly selfish reasons I guess. Hey, if the Harvard study says this is how a man finishes life well with rich relationships, then let’s get on with it!
But there’s also the deeper realization that it’s only when I learn more about how to take love in, that I’ll truly learn more how to give love out. The Apostle Paul taught the key to human growth (happiness) is to focus first on taking in (metabolizing) the love of Christ before giving it out. This is how God means for us to grow (flourish) in all our relationships. I’m glad somebody knows a lot about that.
For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name, that He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with power through His Spirit in the inner man, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; and that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled up to all the fullness of God. – Ephesians 3:14-19
The findings of this study are now published in Vaillant’s book, Triumphs of Experience.