Episode 2: George Vaillant

Hosted by Ben Domenech and Emily Esfahani Smith
Nov 10, 2012

Welcome to the second Acculturated-Ricochet podcast on culture, high and low! In this show, Ben Domenech and  Emily Esfahani-Smith interview the Harvard psychiatrist George Vaillant about his new book Triumphs of Experience: The Men of the Harvard Grant Study, which was recently reviewed in the Wall Street Journal and covered by David Brooks in a New York Times column. 

The Grant Study of Adult Development began in 1938 when over 200 promising Harvard men–among them John F. Kennedy, Ben Bradlee, and Donald Cole–were recruited to participate in one of the most comprehensive and ambitious longitudinal studies of all time. Though that may sound somewhat clinical, Vaillant’s book, by following the men through the triumphs and tragedies of their lives, reads more like literature than like science. The characters that come and go on his stage can be Shakespearian; these were Harvard men that should have made it in life–they were destined for success. Did they? If they didn’t, what happened? If they did, what was their secrets? 

There is a fabulous Atlantic article, “What Makes Us Happy?”, from several years ago that goes into some depth about the study. 

Is there a formula—some mix of love, work, and psychological adaptation—for a good life? For 72 years, researchers at Harvard have been examining this question, following 268 men who entered college in the late 1930s through war, career, marriage and divorce, parenthood and grandparenthood, and old age. Here, for the first time, a journalist gains access to the archive of one of the most comprehensive longitudinal studies in history. Its contents, as much literature as science, offer profound insight into the human condition—and into the brilliant, complex mind of the study’s longtime director, George Vaillant.