What keeps us happy and healthy as we go through life?”
This question might seem to defy a definitive, universally applicable answer, but nevertheless, this is what Robert J. Waldinger ’73 tries to tackle in his 2015 TED Talk. His attempt has earned him tens of millions of views.
For two decades, Waldinger has served as the director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, which has “been following two groups of men over the last 80 years to identify the psychosocial predictors of healthy aging,” according to the study’s website. Under his stewardship, the study has become one of the University’s most prominent research projects, and he has become something of a microcelebrity academic.
Earlier this year, Waldinger co-wrote a book about the study with its associate director, Marc Schulz, called “The Good Life: Lessons from the World’s Longest Scientific Study of Happiness.” It was widely praised and, on the week of its publication, became a New York Times Best Seller.
The scope of Waldinger’s question, combined with the credibility that the Harvard name provides, have vaulted Waldinger’s findings into the spotlight; in the Atlantic, the study was heralded as “the key to a good life;” on CNN, the “secret to happiness;” in Forbes, the “#1 Key To Living Longer And Happier.”
Waldinger explains the central finding of the study in his TED Talk: “Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period.”
Despite the way it is often discussed, the study hasn’t always been so focused on happiness. In fact, the goals, methods, and analysis of the research that form the history of the study have varied dramatically, from defining the “normal” man and justifying certain “breeding” practices to understanding the causes of delinquency. All of the participants in the study’s first generation were male and white.
“The study was never explicitly focused on happiness,” Waldinger tells The Crimson in an emailed statement. “It was on ‘normal’ development, a term we do not use now because in fact, life is way too varied and complex to yield to a single picture of what is ‘normal.’”
“Rather, we think in terms of what’s adaptive — that is, what allows someone to thrive and pursue their goals,” he adds.
The Adult Development study has only existed in its current form since 1972, when funding from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism enabled George Vaillant ’55 to combine two separate studies, which had been collecting data for decades — the Grant Study and Glueck Study of Juvenile Delinquency — with the stipulation that the study would focus on alcoholism.
Tthe Grant Study began in the fall of 1938 with a sample of 268 Harvard undergraduates (including future President John F. Kennedy ’40) and the intention of understanding the makeup of a “normal” man, which involved the analysis of physical characteristics.
“Almost every conceivable measurement from the length of a man’s nose to the width of his feet is recorded,” The Crimson reported in May of 1942. “The student’s height, standing up, sitting, and lying down are noted, as well as his lung capacity.”
This kind of scientific inquiry, called physical anthropology, was closely related to and motivated eugenics. Eugenics saturated academia and public policy at the time, encouraging people with perceived desirable traits and discouraging people with purported undesirable traits from reproducing. Eugenics, now dismissed as pseudoscience, was adopted by Nazi Germany in justifying the Holocaust. Harvard and its faculty played a prominent role in promoting the study of eugenics.
Seven years after the Grant Study began, Earnest A. Hooton, the chair of the Anthropology Department, wrote the first book summarizing the study’s key findings. Hooton, who believed that “every racial strain in our country should be purified,” as he declared in a 1936 speech, was the author of a series of works promoting race science, most prominently the book “Up From The Ape,” which characterized “primary races” and various “subtypes.”
The book Hooton wrote about the Grant Study, called “Young Man, You Are Normal,” was the leading book on the study for three decades, according to Vaillant’s own book. In it, Hooton writes that he hopes the study might give way for “effective control of individual quality through genetics, or breeding,” advancing his belief that “‘normality’ goes closely with a ‘strong masculine component.’”
In “Up From The Ape,” Hooton writes briefly about the Grant Study, mentioning that it initially used “somatotyping” techniques — a now-discredited strain of scientific thought that linked body shape to personality — developed by William H. Sheldon, a psychologist and eugenicist who worked at Harvard.
Together, Hooton and Sheldon pioneered the capture of “posture photos,” nude photos taken of students in the Ivy League and the so-called Seven Sisters for the furtherance of somatotype and eugenics research — a photographing practice that lasted from the 1940s all the way to the 1970s for some schools. This practice was not, however, part of the Grant Study.
Waldinger told The Crimson that Hooton and Sheldon had no direct involvement in the Adult Development study or its precursors.
The use of skull and body measurements in the early years of the study is mentioned, if briefly, in “The Good Life,” Waldinger’s book, though it does not explicitly discuss scientific racism or eugenics.
“The study founders, they may have well done the skull measurements and the body habitus measurements because there was all this stuff swirling around,” Waldinger says. He refers to the Grant Study — as well as the Glueck Study — as an early stage of his Adult Development study rather than as an independent study.
“That was what you did back then,” he adds. “I’m virtually certain there’s no mention of racial stuff in the early study records, because we would have been really alert to that.”
The Glueck Study of Juvenile Delinquency, which was merged with the Grant Study in 1970, beganin 1940 with two cohorts of 500 white male teenagers in Boston, one group with a history of delinquency and one group without.
“The non-delinquent group was matched with the delinquent group on family constellation, family income, and participant’s I.Q.,” Waldinger says.
The study was run by husband and wife Sheldon Glueck, Class of 1924, and Eleanor Glueck, Class of 1925, both highly regarded criminologists at Harvard. In 1934, The Crimson reported on a speech that Sheldon Glueck gave to the National Probation Association about reducing crime. Research, he said, called for “more effective control of marriage and for eugenical measures in the way of sound in the way of sound and safe sterilization of extremely unfit parents and the giving of professional advice regarding contraception.”
Waldinger describes the Gluecks’ goal as producing a study of “healthy development.”
“What they were interested in is: How do some kids who start out in really disadvantaged underprivileged circumstances, how do they manage to stay on good developmental paths and not get into trouble?” Waldinger says.
By the time Vaillant combined the Grant and Glueck studies into what we know today as the Adult Development study, the researchers had already been tracking the developments in lives of the initial participants for decades, as well as the lives of their children. In the second generation, the Adult Development study reached gender parity, but the participants, like their parents, are mostly white. Waldinger defends the lack of diversity in the first generation of the study, stating it is representative of the racial makeup of Harvard and the surrounding area at the time.
The researchers of the Adult Development study have considered recruiting new participants to make the sample demographic more diverse, but ultimately decided not to because the study would lack the same longitudinal data on those participants.
“Every study is limited, every sample is skewed, no sample is completely representative,” Waldinger says. Today, the study is reaching the boundaries of longitudinal, generational nature. It has decided not to reach out to the third generation of the initial participants.
“The youngest person in the third generation is still in preschool, and the oldest person is in their 60s. So how do we even think about that?” Waldinger says, reflecting on the decision.
In his TED talk, Waldinger says, “The founders of this study would never in their wildest dreams have imagined that I would be standing here today, 75 years later, telling you that the study still continues.”
—Staff writer Charlotte P. Ritz-Jack can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on X @charrittzjack.
— Associate Magazine Editor Graham R. Weber can be reached at email@example.com.