The Grant Study

03.11.2018 |

Episode #6 of the course Most brilliant social psychology experiments by John Robin


I hope your day’s off to a great start. I also hope it’s full of close relationships that add warmth to your life. As you’ll soon find out, that’s the true secret to happiness and possibly, longevity.


A Study 80 Years in the Making

What’s now known as the Harvard Study of Adult Development began about 80 years ago, during the Great Depression, at Harvard University, when researchers gathered 268 sophomores for a study that would span the whole of their lives.

Known as the Grant Study when it began in 1938, it was soon joined by the Glueck study, named after its pioneer, Sheldon Glueck. 456 more subjects joined the study, all disadvantaged, non-delinquent inner-city youth from Boston to complement the privileged upper class subjects from Harvard.

The study has now continued on through Harvard Medical School, going through four different directors and is backed by the National Institute of Health. Subjects, as they’ve aged through their 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s, have been given special medical tests like MRIs, detailed questionnaires, and frequent in-person interviews. All of this data has been aimed at studying what happiness really is.

The results have been surprising.

“Loneliness kills; it’s as powerful as smoking or alcohol,” says Dr. Robert Waldinger, the present director of the study, in a popular TED talk (linked at the end of the lesson). “Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period.”

The other important finding of the study was that factors such as looking after our health and personal growth were not enough for overall satisfaction in life. Furthermore, social class, IQ, and genetic advantages also made no difference, as many subjects who had high IQs, no genetic disadvantages (such as those that encode for mental illness), fitness, and accomplishment in finances and professional success still reported as being unhappy with life if they also reported less satisfaction in close relationships.

Some relationships that the Grant study paid particular attention to:

• relationships with mothers in childhood

• relationships with fathers in childhood

• general close relationships

Those who described “warm” relationships with their mothers in childhood earned an average of $87,000/year more than those who described relationships with mothers as uncaring. Those who described “warm” relationships with their fathers in childhood reported more life satisfaction after age 75 and were able to better enjoy vacations. In general, the study found those who reported their close relationships as “warm” earned an average of $141,000/year more at their peak salary (usually around age 55 to 60).

As the study has expanded beyond just the 268 Harvard men from the late 30s, it has found further interesting results to reinforce the findings of the Grant study. For instance, people who reported being most satisfied in close relationships at age 50 reported higher life satisfaction at age 80. In fact, the value of close relationships at age 50 was found as a better predictor of life satisfaction than cholesterol level!

The other important result that’s come from the expanded study has to do with marriages—in particular, mental health and marriage. Those who reported satisfaction in marriage reported more stability in moods, even when suffering with physical pain. Those who were unhappy in marriage reported more emotional and physical pain.

It is thought by researchers that these results imply that the positive psychological impact of strong close relationships helps one reduce the mental and physical decline that commonly results with aging, since these relationships help these individuals overcome discontent and empowers them to live life fully, despite the inevitable obstacles of aging.

So, there you have it. These solid scientific findings (which will probably only get stronger as this study continues) state that investing in close relationships is the true key to success in health, long life, finances, and overall wellbeing.

The Beatles were right: “Love is all you need.”

Stay tuned for tomorrow, when we’ll focusing more on the secrets to a long, happy life, but this time, by way of studying Oscar winners.


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Recommended videos

Dr. Waldinger’s TED talk on the Grant Study and its ongoing branches.

All you need is love! Take a moment to listen to this song and reflect on the key ingredient to happiness.


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