Wednesday, January 13, 2016

A Letter to My Buddy Fran

Happy New Year Everyone!  I have not posted in awhile, but am so happy to be back at my desk after a busy fall and holiday season.  I'm kicking off my blogging year with a public letter to my friend named Fran, who I met at Cheryl Strayed's writing workshop last Spring.  Fran is a beautiful writer (check out her blog if you want to get lost in poetry and great personal narrative) and I'm writing to her today because she asked me for one single link, but it was on a topic that I really like.  In the beginning of the year I've offered myself a bit of freedom and open space, today I really let myself use it.  I offer you my wandering note to Fran in the hopes that others find The Harvard Study on Adult Development aka The Grant Study interesting and encouraging.

Dear Fran,
Thanks for asking for the link to the TEDx talk about The Grant Study, which is now referred to as The Harvard Study of Adult Development.  It has given me an excuse to collect my thoughts on this study, which has been a thread of interest for me for a long time.

The Harvard Scholars who run the The Harvard Study of Adult Development, say it may be the longest run longitudinal study of adult development that currently exists (so Harvard of them!).  It includes 724 men, 268 were “Harvard men” from the original Grant Study and 456 boys from inner city Boston who were part of a lesser known study called the Glueck Study.  I also read in one of the articles below that, at some point, women from Stanford’s Terman Study had also been folded into the group, though I am not sure what impact this has had.  But by and large the Harvard Study of Adult Development, often more casually referred to as The Grant Study, has considered the long term evolution of men’s lives.  

I don’t remember when I first learned about The Grant Study, but it feels to me like I learned about it when I was at Harvard or at least soon after I graduated, because for me there has always been, a sense of connection, as if these men were somehow my own predecessors, which in a way, they were.  I have a  fondness and affection for the study and the stories it contains, as if it gifted me a tribe of elders that I would never have known otherwise.  

That said, the learning so far has excluded stories from women and individuals of color.  So like with my actual grandfathers, I have to assume that my views may be different from theirs, and that the shape of what can be learned from studying these stories is less authoritative than any of us would like it to be.  And yet, as writers and human beings, as fellow believers in the art of narrative, I think we can allow ourselves the pleasure of absorbing wisdom and encouragement from the stories anyhow.

The particular link you were asking after is a TED talk given by Robert Waldinger who is the Fourth Director of The Harvard Study of Adult Development.  He is a Clinical Professor of Psychology at Harvard Medical School, The Director of Psychodynamic Therapy at Mass General, and oh by the way, Fran, a Zen priest, which in some odd way seems like it just might be the glue that makes all those other roles fit together.  The TED talk is a short one, just under 13 minutes.  Worth a listen.  

The synopsis:  “Living in the midst of good, warm relationships is protective.”

In 2009 Joshua Wolf Shenk (author of Powers of Two: How Relationships Drive Creativity) wrote a cover story for The Atlantic about The Grant Study.  He dove deep into its history, chronicling its leadership and the evolution of its funding, revealing that at one point Phillip Morris offered some funds, and not surprisingly a question was added into the questionnaire for non-smokers about why they had never smoked.  It’s hard to say what speaks to me more in this article, the learning from The Grant Study, or Shenk’s analysis of the evolution of The Grant Study and its leadership. 

It’s difficult to boil this one down for you into a one line synopsis, but I found this bit about the study to stay with me, “Regular exercise predicted late-life mental health better than it did physical health.  And depression turned out to be a major drain on physical health:  of the men who were diagnosed with depression by age 50, more than 70 percent had died or were chronically ill by 63.”   If you have time, this article is worth it, if for no other reason to be swept away into Shenk’s mind, where you run across beautiful sentences like this one, “Perhaps in this, I though, likes the key to the good life—not rules to follow, nor problems to avoid, but an engaged humility, an earnest acceptance of life’s pains and promises.  In his effort to manifest this spirit, George Vaillant is, if not a model, then certainly a practiced guide.”

When George Vaillant released Triumphs of Experience, his latest book on The Harvard Study of Adult Development, The Atlantic covered The Grant Study again with Scott Stossel reporting.  The 2013 article is a short piece that serves up a selection of informational gems that make for excellent internet reading, including this tidbit, “Aging liberals have more sex.  Political ideology has no bearing on life satisfaction—but the most conservative men ceased sexual relations at an average of 68, while the most liberal men had active sex lives into their 80s.”  So Fran, knowing that you and I lean similarly politically, I think the future looks promising for us :-)  Similarly to the 2009 article, the writing is inspired and led me to learn more about the writer, Scott Stossel, whose 2014 book, My Age of Anxiety:  Fear, Hope, Dread and the Search for Peace of Mind, seems worth tracking down.

The Daily Beast and The Art of Manliness have both run articles on The Grant Study, which I guess makes sense because those websites seem pretty interested in man stuff.  And while my Cheryl Strayed, Elizabeth Gilbert loving self, does not often frequent those corners of the internet, I do enjoy flippant man writing too.  I don’t typically recommend The Daily Beast for wisdom, but you have to admit, this nugget could help you out on a bad day: “Life is long, Vaillant seems to be saying, and lots of shit happens.  What is true in one stage of a man’s life is not true in another.  Previously divorced men are capable of long and loving marriages.  There is a time to monitor cholesterol (before age 50 [if you are a man]) and a time to ignore it.  Self-starting, as a character trait, is relatively unimportant to flourishing in early life, but very important at the end of it.” 

And finally, if my summaries have not burned you out on the topic, you could go right to the source and read Vaillant’s most recent book, The Triumphs of Experience.  I own one of his previous books, Spiritual Evolution:  How We Are Wired for Faith, Hope and Love, which I think I will re-read, but that will be for another day.

Fran, thanks for giving me a reason to put these articles in one place.  It was a satisfying way to spend a morning, made more so by indulging myself in the thought that I was writing to you.  As I wrap this up, I am reminded of our time together at the Cheryl Strayed workshop on Maui, and of the one-on-one time we had reading each other’s writing.  I picked you out of the crowd that morning, because I had written something darker and riskier than I had ever written before.  And it was not fiction.  I picked you because you struck me as a person who could hold that, hear that, and be with me in that.  

I mention it here, because something about that interaction reminds me of where this whole letter began, with the Waldinger talk.  One thing he says in that talk is this, “It’s the quality of your close relationships that matters.”  And I would say, in a very short time and in a very limited set of interactions, you and I were able to enter into that kind of closeness and quality.  I want to mention it, because “warm and protective relationships,” feels a little g-rated, and our lives, for better or for worse will always be messier than that.  Warm and protective and high quality might also boil down to something like being true with one another, even when the stories we have to tell aren’t the prettiest.  So thank you for offering me the opportunity to be true with you that day.  It lives in my heart as a most important moment.

Sending love,



  1. I am so completely honored and touched by this, lovely friend. You are an amazing writer and a deep thinker and a soulful woman. I feel so so so lucky to have met you. Sending you love right back.

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