Interviewing Men for 70 Years

George VaillantAn article in the latest issue of Atlantic magazine by Joshua Wolf Shenk has been attracting a lot of attention (e.g., NYT, Mind Hacks) lately. It describes a lo-o-o-ongitudinal study of the lives of 268 men who entered Harvard in the 1930s. From the time of their childhoods, through their college years, into their maturity and finally old age, these men have been repeatedly interviewed about the twists and turns of their lives. The founder of the study, Harvard physician Arlie Bock, had “assembled a team that spanned medicine, physiology, anthropology, psychiatry, psychology, and social work, and was advised by such luminaries as the psychiatrist Adolf Meyer and the psychologist Henry Murray.”

The study found that some, even among those who are the most privileged and outwardly successful, have astruggled with mental illness, alcoholism, directionlessness, and mundane relationship troubles. Shenck discovered that John F. Kennedy was one of the original participants. Of the late US president he writes,

Kennedy—the heir to ruthless, ambitious privilege; the philanderer of “Camelot”; the paragon of casual wit and physical vigor who, backstage, suffered from debilitating illness—is no one’s idea of “normal.” And that’s the point. The study began in the spirit of laying lives out on a microscope slide. But it turned out that the lives were too big, too weird, too full of subtleties and contradictions to fit any easy conception of “successful living.” Arlie Bock had gone looking for binary conclusions—yeses and nos, dos and don’ts. But the enduring lessons would be paradoxical, not only on the substance of the men’s lives (the most inspiring triumphs were often studies in hardship) but also with respect to method: if it was to come to life, this cleaver-sharp science project would need the rounding influence of storytelling.

The Atlantic article also profiles the man who has carefully nurtured this study over the last 40+ years, Harvard psychiatrist and psychoanalyst George Vaillant. (The on-line version includes a short video interview with Vaillant.)

“Much of what is labeled mental illness,” Vaillant writes, “simply reflects our ‘unwise’ deployment of defense mechanisms. If we use defenses well, we are deemed mentally healthy, conscientious, funny, creative, and altruistic. If we use them badly, the psychiatrist diagnoses us ill, our neighbors label us unpleasant, and society brands us immoral.” This perspective is shaped by a long-term view. Whereas clinicians focus on treating a problem at any given time, Vaillant is more like a biographer, looking to make sense of a whole life—or, to take an even broader view, like an anthropologist or naturalist looking to capture an era. The good news, he argues, is that diseases—and people, too—have a “natural history.” After all, many of the “psychotic” adaptations are common in toddlers, and the “immature” adaptations are essential in later childhood, and they often fade with maturity.

Vaillant’s conclusion, perhaps unsurprisingly, is that happiness is the product of love. For all their wealth and professional success, the ones who ended up happy, were the ones who were successful in their relationships with others. Perhaps this sounds banal, but the intricacy and complexity of the lives of the men profiled makes for fascinating reading.

About Christopher Green

Professor of Psychology at York University (Toronto). Former editor of the Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences. Creator of the "Classics in the History of Psychology" website and of the "This Week in the History of Psychology" podcast series.