The Grant Study is an extraordinary longitudinal study undertaken in the late 1930s to shed light on "the urgent question of how to live well." As participants, a group of 268 (male) Harvard College sophomores, including John F. Kennedy and Ben Bradlee, were chosen for showing particular promise.
An article interestingly entitled "What Makes Us Happy?" in the June 2009 issue of the Atlantic explores what we might learn from 72 years of following that gifted group.
The biggest surprise may be how unreliable those evaluations at a formative age turned out to be for purposes of predicting future success and happiness. Or perhaps, that in spite of those evaluations, how inevitable stumbling is.
As David Brooks, in his May 11, 2009 editorial "They Had It Made" in The New York Times relates: "Their lives played out in ways that would defy any imagination save Dostoevsky’s. A third of the men would suffer at least one bout of mental illness. Alcoholism would be a running plague. The most mundane personalities often produced the most solid success."
Almost as interesting as the study is the man who has been overseeing it for more than four decades, George Vaillant. Vaillant doesn’t hesitate to arrive at a familiar yet profound conclusion: relationships are the key to happiness.
Yet the difficulty of putting that dictum into practice is evident in Vaillant’s own life. At work, he has proved to be a valued colleague and mentor. On the personal front, things are much more challenging. His father committed suicide, which his mother never acknowledged, his three marriages all ended in divorce and his children describe their home as being a "civil war" and their father as having a problem with intimacy.
There are some other interesting takeaways from the study, which Brooks points out. All the men tended to cope better as they aged. Those who suffered from depression by age 50 were much more likely to die by age 63. Those with close sibling relationships proved much healthier in old age than those without them.
What is not clear is why these particular young men were chosen to participate in the study in the first place. All we really know about them is that their admission to Harvard College at that time meant they were at least reasonably bright and probably the sons of influential and wealthy families. And that someone at Harvard College had a high opinion of them.
Of course, in the 1930s they didn’t have access to the bundle of assessments available to us in the 21st century. The "science" of head size and phrenology (the study of bumps on the head) had had its heyday during the prior century. The concept of an assessable intelligence quotient had only recently been introduced; the Wechsler Intelligence Scale would appear a few years later.
What did the Grant Study originators think success in "living well" meant? And what did they think it took to accomplish that? In other words, what specific attributes were they looking for? Might the many different paths that the participants eventually took reflect a lack of a clear vision on the part of the originators as to their concept either of success or its antecedents?
Perhaps Brooks’ note that "the most mundane personalities often produced the most solid success" informed another editorial, "In Praise of Dullness," that appeared a week later. There he cited a recent study that seems to point to "relentless and somewhat mind-numbing commitment to incremental efficiency gains" as the critical attribute of successful CEOs. Even if that correlation is in fact relevant (see the comments on Richard Edelman’s "Dull Advice," which question its relevance as a broad-based indicator), it seems unlikely that it was young men with that attribute whom the Grant Study originators sought to identify.
Knowing what you are looking for in any selection process is critical. Organizations around the world use sophisticated assessments to choose candidates for employment and advancement based on the competencies, attributes and traits that they have found predict success in their organizations.
Yet we recruiters of legal talent often don’t know what we are looking for. At a roundtable two weeks ago on legal hiring, David Van Zandt, Dean of Northwestern University School of Law, entreated law firms to develop a better model for selecting their summer associates. "I’ve long advocated that firms really need to look at their data… and identify the characteristics that they’re looking for in their candidates," Van Zandt said. Now, "you just go out and throw a wide net and pull people in."
In fact, as we’ve suggested (see our entry "The Outliers of Law–Embracing Heresy "), the single attribute–high class standing–that firms do look for may be the one that could well be jettisoned–or at least modified–with little impact on the quality of legal services.
What the Grant Study does show is that predicting the future course of even a bright young person with a shiny veneer of promise can be difficult. And that regardless of their credentials or intelligence, many are likely to fall to the various vicissitudes of man–mental illness, addiction, relationship breakdown.
So then, what can one do to be happy?
Valiant knows: "Happiness is love, full stop."
Now it’s just a matter of implementation.