Aging Well: Surprising Guideposts to a Happier Life from the Landmark Study of Adult Development

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"We all need models for how to live from retirement to past 80--with joy," writes George Vaillant, M.D., director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development. This groundbreaking book pulls together data from three separate longevity studies that, beginning in their teens, followed 824 individuals for more than 50 years. The subjects were male Harvard graduates; inner-city, disadvantaged males; and intellectually gifted women.

"Here you have these wonderful files, and you seem little interested in how we cope with increasing age ... our adaptability, our zest for life," one of these subjects wrote to Vaillant, a researcher, psychiatrist, and Harvard Medical School professor, about how he was using this information. Vaillant took this advice to heart. In Aging Well, he presents personal narratives about people from these studies whom he interviewed personally in their 70s and 80s. He describes their history, relationships, hardships, philosophies, and sources of joy. We learn their perspectives and what makes them want to get up in the morning.

We also learn what makes old age vital and interesting. Vaillant discusses the important adult developmental tasks, such as identity, intimacy, and generativity (giving to the next generation), and provides important clues to a healthy, meaningful, satisfying old age. Health in old age, we learn, is not predicted by low cholesterol or ancestral longevity, but by factors such as a stable marriage, adaptive coping style (the ability to make lemonade out of life's lemons), and regular exercise.

Vaillant is empathetic and sometimes surprisingly poetic: "Owning an old brain, you see, is rather like owning an old car.... Careful driving and maintenance are everything." He freely includes subjective observations and interpretations, giving us a richer picture of the people he interviewed and insights into their lives. Aging Well is recommended for readers who are interested in learning about the quality-of-life issues of aging from the people who have the most to teach. --Joan Price

This is the acclaimed bestseller that reveals the scientific secrets to ensuring that our golden years are truly golden. Based on the longest and most complete study of adult development in the world, Aging Well draws from the individual histories of 824 men and women from a variety of backgrounds to illustrate the most important factors involved in reaching and enjoying a happy, healthy old age.

Customer Reviews:

  • A good foundation for creating a philosophy about aging
    Mountains of research was reviewed to write this book. For that effort I added an additional star to the three I gave for the book itself. The three studies referenced in this book began before the author was born or when he was a youngster. Dr. Vaillant's participation with these projects began decades later. This data was fragmented and resided on many different mediums. He undertook the task of getting all the data compiled onto a hard drive. His next task was to correlate the data (which was not always consistent between the three studies) to form meaningful patterns about aging.

    His book is an "attempt to offer models for how to live from retirement to past 80 with joy". Comparing his pursuit to Dr. Spock's career in the study of child development, the author also perceives his book as "an attempt to anticipate development of old age and understand what can be changed and what has to be accepted."

    Using composite histories of the study participants for comparison, six adult life tasks are reviewed: Identity, Intimacy, Career Consolidation, Generativity, Keeper of the Meaning and Integrity. The author strives to determine if we are genetically predisposed in how we experience these phases or in some cases choose to stay indefinitely in a phase that is comfortable rather than move on to experience another.

    I read this book out of curiousity about the experiences of advanced aging in the United States and feel I now have a good foundation for developing a philosophy about my own aging process.

    This book is not a deep scholarly rendition, however, the majority of the 300+ pages examing statistical data and percentage references became tiresome and difficult to analyze in lengthy reading sessions. I preferred reading a chapter and putting the book down for a while.

    A helpful tip: I realized, after the fact, that reading the appendices first would have helped me understand of some terms and jargon used to refer to elements of the studies....more info

  • Well worth reading, especially for readers in their 30s and 40s
    This is one of my favorite books for two reasons: It summarizes some extremely interesting research, and I have great respect for the author, George Vaillant, M.D., who has a long-term interest in adult development and psychological coping. I do not know him personally, but as a psychiatrist I have been familiar with his work since the 1970s.

    The research involves almost 1000 men and women who were closely studied intermittently for decades, so that the findings are prospective (as opposed to most long-term research which uses retrospective data). As a result, Dr. Vaillant (along with others) has been able to tease out characteristics which can lead to predictions of outcome (in this case "Happy-Well" vs. "Sad-Sick"). He discovers that much of what affects health and happiness over the long term is under our control. The surprise in this book (and Dr. Vaillant's other work) is that circumstances of birth, including genes, do not completely determine our eventual health. This is good news for those of us who are tired of seeing all of medicine and psychology reduced to biological determinism and a worship of so-called cures that come in a bottle or a procedure.

    Dr. Vaillant succeeds in this book in striking a balance between using academic concepts and explaining the key findings in very readable and accessible form.

    The weakness of the book is that the research, being prospective, suffers from a strong cohort effect. That is, the subjects all lived during a similar historical and cultural period in the U.S. and were subject to the same overall economic, political and social forces. That particular pattern of world and local events is unique; no future generations will ever experience the same environment. So, that makes it hard to generalize his conclusions. Even so, I think Dr. Vaillant does a good job of putting them in perspective and honestly appraising their relevance for current and future generations. It is unlikely research like this will be done again because of the incredible cost and the need for a research team to remain intact for decades.

    Despite the title of the book, I recommend it especially for people in their 30s and 40s who are early enough in the process of aging to really apply some of the lessons.

    My favorite quote: [Aging well means] "learning to live with neither too much desire and adventure nor too much caution and self-care. ... Rather, successful aging means giving to others joyously whenever one is able, receiving from others gratefully whenever one needs it, and being greedy enough to develop one's own self in between."...more info
  • Vaillant, George E. (2002). Aging well. Boston, Little, Brow

    George E. Vaillant is well qualified to write this book. He is a psychiatrist at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, a professor at Harvard Medical School, director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, and a respected researcher. Harvard Medical School professors have been studying the basic elements of adult human development for more than five decades. Three separate cohorts of 824 individuals were selected as teenagers for different facts of mental and physical health and studied for the rest of their lives to observe the adult life cycle and to provide a theoretical framework for understanding how older people become fulfilled or not.

    Harvard men were studied. In 1940, men who went to Harvard were rich, privileged, white, born to American born grandparents, and expected to equal or exceed their natural ability.

    In 1939, Sheldon Glueck obtained funding to do a prospective study of 500 youth sent to reform school and 500 matched school boys who had not been in any legal trouble
    at age 14. His wife restudied the groups at ages 17, 25, and 32. The control nondeliquent group had the same social risk factors that helped doom the delinquents-had repeated two grades or more in school, had foreign born parents, lived in blighted neighborhoods, and were from families known to five or more social agencies and more than two-thirds were on welfare. Valinti inherited the study when the subjects were 40, and subjects continued to have physical examinations every five years. At age 60, all but 2 of the 456 subjects were known to be dead or alive.

    For the Terman Women Sample, Terman tried to identify most of the brightest children in his three city area. He asked teachers to indentify the brightest in each class. He learned that the unattractive and shy children tended to be overlooked so that he only captured about 80 percent of the bright children. He used the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Test to identify 1 percent of the California urban school children with IOs greater than 135 to 140 most of whom were born between 1908 and 1914. Four generations of investigators have followed the Terman men and women by questionnaires about every five years and by personal interviews in 1940 and 1950. The Terman women were not asked to provide regular physical exams. However, when compared to classmates, they had better nutrition, more humor, common sense, perseverance, leadership and popularity among their classmates. By age 80, they had half the mortality of white American women in their birth cohort.

    In comparison, at age sixty-eight to seventy, the inner city men had the same physical decline as the Terman and Harvard cohorts at seventy-eight to eighty. The difference was attributed to less education, more obesity, and greater alcohol and cigarette abuse among the inner city cohort.

    These cohorts seemed to demonstrate that it is social aptitude or emotional intelligence rather than brilliance or parental social class that leads to a well-adapted old age. Vaillant concluded that individual life style choices contribute a greater role than genetics, wealth, race, or other factors in determining how happy people are in late life. He found that " It is not the bad things that happen to us that doom us; it is the good people who happen to us at any age that facilitate enjoyable old age. Healing relationships are facilitated by a capacity for gratitude, for forgiveness.... A good marriage at age 50 predicted positive aging at 80. But surprisingly, low cholesterol levels at age 50 did not. Alcohol abuse -unrelated to unhappy childhood-consistently predicted unsuccessful aging, in part because alcoholism damaged future social supports. Learning to play and create after retirement and learning to gain younger friends as we lose older ones add more to life's enjoyment than retirement income. Objective good physical health was less important to successful aging than subjective good health.... It is all right to be ill as long as you do not feel sick" p. 13.

    This research report can help us understand that we can do little to changer our genetic make-up, but we can change our habits so we avoid alcohol and smoking, eat a healthy diet, exercise to maintain a healthy weight, develop loving relationships, and continue to learn. These are important lessons for all of us wanting to age well, but it takes a sophisticated reader, knowledgable about research and willing to wade through research findings to read this research report. The book has 12 chapters, 11 appendices, notes, acknowledgments, and an index.
    ...more info
  • Fascinatin' Data
    This is an outstanding book if for no other reason that it describes in detail not one, but three studies that have followed selected groups of individuals from youth through old age over the course of the twentieth century. Two of the groups studied were drawn largely from people of privilege, but the third most assuredly was not.

    The author became the ultimate caretaker of the data from the largest studies as part of his work at Harvard. As perhaps a sign of the times, the data from that study, which once was recorded painstakingly in ledger volumes now sits in his hard drive (one hopes carefully backed up). Simply learning that these studies existed was an eye-opener for me. What treasures!

    Though Vaillant happily draws a number of subjective conclusions from the data in the course of this book, he provides substantial information about the objective facts from which his conclusions are drawn. The reader is educated sufficiently to differ with confidence when so moved. The author's periodic confessions of how his views on various study participants evolved of the course of many years is a rather charming demonstration of aging well in its own right. This book is not intended as a scholarly work, however, and the data are not reproduced in full.

    I thought the descriptions of individuals who participated in the study, disguised though they might be, and of the author himself, to be the most interesting part of the book. Though they prevent _Aging Well_ from being a simple "Guide To Enjoying Being Old," the participant profiles provide considerable nuance and subtlety as the author ponders the age-old question, how are we to make the best of our lot in life?...more info

  • If you must it, check it out from the library
    If you have read the excerpt available on this site, you have already read the best part of the book, so don't bother purchasing it.

    There are a lot of things wrong with this book, but I think the most glaring is the author's utterly un-subtle understanding of human nature. Unfortunately in an effort to preserve participant privacy, the author "disguised" the identities of his subjects. What that means in practical terms is that all "examples" of "real" lives are actually composites which have essentially been fabricated by the author. Now, I would be okay with that if the author was a talented novelist with the ability to preserve poigniant detail while sacrificing factuality. But sadly, this is not the case. There is not a single life-story in the book that takes up more than a few pages and for this reason alone, they are all disappointing simplifications. The scant space spent on each life story is even more disconcerting when you think that this guy has access to 50 or 60 years of these people's histories! There is one and only one example that gets an even close to humanizing portrayal: that is the example you find in the excerpt available on-line. (And even that reads like a fairy tale.) Most other vignettes are about 2 pages, surely not enough to do anyone justice, even the most one-sided person. In fact almost every character introduced fits into one of two catagories: Mr. Joe Popular (with loving wife, great kids, super career and cloying "aw-shucks" attitude) or Mr. Sad-sack (with no friends, multiple divorces, no contact with kids and utter career directionlessness). These are fine as arche-types, but after a few hundred pages, you really get the feeling that the author is actually INCAPABLE of reccognizing any greater level of nuance in the human experience.

    Essentially, the author's point is this: HAVE FRIENDS. Do that and your life will be hunky-dory. Neglect relationships and you will wallow in your own personal hell and probably die young. So there you have it. It is sad and a disservice to people's complicated life-histories that the author was not able to reflect the true diversity of human experience.

    BUT! There are other things that bug me about this book. Firstly, the author is obsesses with his "Harvard Men" -- and especially anyone who went to Med school. And from reading this book you'd get the feeling that at least 90% of the respondants are doctors. I get feeling Dr. Valliant identifies a little too closely with people who are JUST LIKE HIM. It is sad that he can't see further than the end of his nose. For this same reason, I'm sure, the "Inner City" men get very little air time.

    ALSO!Despite claims that one of the studies focuses on women, virtually no mention is made of these subjects. When the women are mentioned Dr. Valliant has such a stilted view of their lives, it is a bit sickening....more info

  • Aging Well
    Nice collection of case studies featuring geriatric counseling and treatment. Considering we are at the leading edge of geriatric science, this book does provide insight into clinical modalities and strategies to use with elderly populations. ...more info
  • Best nonfiction book I have read
    While one cannot take the author literally as to each item or recommendation (and the author probably does not expect you to), this insightful text has many great ideas for staying young and living a full rewarding life, regardless of your financial status.

    This should be required reading to pass 30 years of age!...more info

  • Great Study ...
    Found the book to be both interesting and informative. Happier is better...and should be the goal for our seniors....more info
  • Really good read...
    I bought this book as a textbook for a college class. It is very informative and the style is good. It's perspective is interesting and it puts a lot of pieces of the aging puzzle together. There are a lot of tips and tasks and things to think about and plan for for aging well and the book is worth it for that. But if you despise long drawn out personal narratives, this one's not for you. ...more info
  • Aging Well is helpful
    The most useful information I found was the four areas listed for seniors to follow in later life. The recommendations were based on several comprehensive studies which followed people throughout their lifetimes. I did find it odd that in the beginning the author completely overlooked work done by Abraham Maslow many years ago, and instead insisted that he (the author) had been the first to study healthy people. This, however, was a small thing overall and didn't take away from the relevance of the information....more info
  • A Useful Pop-Psych Antidote to Aging Poorly
    With around 320 pages of main text, not counting the appendices, Vaillant takes some time to present a popularization of several longitudinal studies of adult development, and to put forth the idea that development doesn't simply stop at 5, 12, 21, or even 45, but that it continues, with specific challenges, into the late and late-late years of life.

    As a book intended for popular reading, Vaillant can be expected to make assertions and hopeful noises that his data don't necessarily back up to the same extent as he would for a peer reviewed journal. Generalizability from the studies he has available (which are impressive accomplishments in social science research, even with all of their limitations) is sketchy, especially since he gives most of his time to the Harvard group of white men.

    Still, even seeing a limited portrayal of a slice of the population that's gotten young-old (60-69), old-old (70-79), and become the oldest-old (80+) has its benefits. For one thing, it does help lay out a trajectory that those of us who are distant from the older generations can use of to conceive the future of our parents and the present of our grandparents in ways beyond loss.

    So if you want a pick=me up and a reminder about many of the strengths and successes of the elderly go ahead and pick this up. Just don't expect it to tell you as much about the disadvantaged elderly....more info

  • A guidebook the the seven ages of man
    I have now read this book twice and I share the fact of the wisdom it contains with anyone who will listen. I believe it is an excellent guide on the path through life, the journey to success as a human being. Here you can learn how to laugh into maturity and leave a legacy in old age. But it's about more than those. You can also learn how others have successfully and unsuccessfully navigated the challenges of the twenties, the rapids of the thirties and the doldrums of the forties. And by their examples you can create your own path through to self knowledge....more info


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