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Aging Well: Surprising Guideposts to a…

Aging Well: Surprising Guideposts to a Happier Life from the Landmark… (edition 2003)

by George E. Vaillant

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Title:Aging Well: Surprising Guideposts to a Happier Life from the Landmark Harvard Study of Adult Development
Authors:George E. Vaillant
Info:Little, Brown and Company (2003), Paperback, 384 pages
Collections:Your library, Psych - cogsci - neuro
Tags:well-being, ageing, _book

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Aging Well: Surprising Guideposts to a Happier Life from the Landmark Harvard Study of Adult Development by George E. Vaillant



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The Harvard Study of Adult Development was designed to study several facets of adult development. After more than 50 years, study director George Vaillant was able to draw conclusions about how men and women could lead fulfilling, happy, healthy lives into their sixties and beyond. Vaillant determined that one’s past was not a significant determinant of healthy aging, and confirmed that development continues throughout adulthood. Building on Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development, Vaillant describes six adult life tasks and then focuses on the three most central to healthy aging: Generativity (unselfishly guiding the next generation), Keeper of the Meaning (conservation and preservation of culture and its institutions), and Integrity (acceptance of one’s life cycle in spite of decline). There are many ways to fulfill these life tasks (or not), which the book illustrates through the stories of study participants. I found the concepts and conclusions of the study very interesting, but these were often overly padded by the stories. One example was usually sufficient for me to understand the concept, and yet he often presented two, three, or more, leading me to skim in search of his next major point.

I was most interested in chapters that helped me to consider my own future. Vaillant’s analysis distinguishing the “happy-well” from the “sad-sick” led to predictors of healthy aging, and highlighted variables that had no effect. Not surprisingly, alcohol use, smoking, exercise, and weight were all factors. But so were stable relationships, social supports, and ability to cope with life’s twists and turns. And factors like ancestral longevity, parental characteristics, childhood temperament, stress, and cholesterol, often cited as contributors to longevity, turned out to have little impact. The chapter on Retirement was, for me, the most interesting and relevant as it provided a framework for thinking about how to live a fulfilling life. An abridged version of the framework follows:
There are four basic activities that make retirement rewarding. First, retirees should replace their work mates with another social network....

Second, and essential to happy retirement, retirees must rediscover...how to play..... Play provides a wonderful magic that is especially suited to retirement, for play permits a person to maintain self-esteem while giving up self-importance.... Besides, play makes retirement fun.

The third basic activity is creativity. Creativity requires protected time — even solitude; and thus, while raising a family and earning a living, creativity is not always possible. In retirement, however, creativity, like play, should be a primary goal.

Fourth, retirees should continue lifelong learning. The challenge in retirement is to combine the fruits of maturity with the recovery of childlike wonder.

I could have done with more than 30 pages on this topic, simply because that was my main purpose in reading this book. Still, it met my expectations by leaving me with much to think about. ( )
  lauralkeet | Oct 9, 2016 |
I had been writing an essay — on “spiritualizing education” — for a journal I once edited. When I finished, late one night, I was browsing in my library and happened to pick up a book I had gone through some years earlier: Aging Well (Little, Brown, 2002) by George E. Vaillant, M.D. I turned, naturally, to the chapter entitled, “Spirituality, Religion, and Old Age.” Surprisingly, the basic thesis of the chapter is that religion, however defined, or a deep sense of spirituality, does not necessarily lead to happiness or contentment in old age. Most of the chapter is devoted to detailed case studies of three individuals to illustrate this thesis. But I was struck by a brief section on the difference between spirituality and religion. Religion comes from without, Dr. Vaillant maintains; spirituality comes from within. “Religions involve creeds and catechisms. Spirituality involves feelings and experiences. . . . Religion is ‘left-brain’ — it is rooted in words, sacred texts, and culture. Spirituality is ‘right brain’; it transcends the boundaries of body, language, reason and culture.” He summarizes this distinction in a little chart, which he admits oversimplifies the topic. In fact, it creates stereotypes of the adolescent, whom he associates with religious belief, and the mature person, whom he associates with spiritual trust. Well, I don’t like having to admit that I am a stereotype, but the characteristics match my experience precisely. The adolescent’s task is what Erik Erikson calls the acquisition of Identity; the mature person, of Integrity. (More on this later.)

The adolescent is prone to religious dogma, to a sense of shame, obligation, and judgment, to a wish to stay out of Hell. This was certainly true for me. I was brought up a Southern fundamentalist, and I even committed myself, for a few years, to preparation for the ministry. The Bible was the literal Word of God. It specified five steps to be saved: believe, repent, confess, be baptized, and live a “Christian” life — in that order. Baptism had to be the voluntary immersion of an adult believer. Even in my youth I had misgivings about the narrowness and exclusivity of this church, but it took me years to assert my independence. In maturity, the spiritual life tends to see religious teachings as metaphor rather than dogma, to develop a sense of affirmation, gratitude, and forgiveness, and to see Hell as negative experiences one has already lived through. “Metaphors are open-ended and playful; dogma is rigid and serious,” he says; “. . . with time, a reassuring personal god evolves into a Higher Power that is intangible, universal, and well beyond easy comprehension.” I no longer am satisfied with the words Elohim (the gods), YHWH (the nameless), Adonai (Lord), or Jesu (Savior). Immanuel (God-with-us, or God-within-us) is preferable. More often I use Spirit or the One or the Infinite.

The adolescent tends to explain his experience, “They drew a circle that drew me out.” Oh, indeed, I was an outsider in my environment — school, family, community — until I was eighteen years old. Maturity is to say, “I drew a circle that drew them in.” And the circle gets wider and wider. The adolescent’s god is omnipotent and closed, perhaps a Father (“The Lord is my shepherd”—a parent/child relationship). In maturity the sense of divinity is vulnerable and open; the relationship is a partnership (“I dress the wound, God heals it”). As Dr. Vaillant says, “. . . as people grow older they learn to communicate with individuals from a variety of faith traditions.”

Here I had been thinking of myself as having made tremendous personal strides in the growth of my spiritual vision. As it turns out, I am only fulfilling a stereotypical role. Oh, well. So be it.

The subtitle of Vaillant's book is Surprising Guideposts to a Happier Life from the Landmark Harvard Study of Adult Development, kind of a built-in blurb. The Study is based on case studies of 824 individuals, chosen as teenagers, and followed throughout their lives. Some of them were, at the time the book was written, in their 70s or 80s. Their stories are varied but interesting, as life stories almost always are.

To me, however, the more enlightening feature of the book is the demonstration and adaptation of Erik Erikson’s four stages of life: Identity vs. Identity Diffusion, Intimacy vs. Isolation, Generativity vs. Stagnation, and Integrity vs. Despair. A follow up of Erikson’s study of children, at Berkeley, found that during a lifetime three components of one’s social life tended to increase significantly: outgoingness, self-confidence, and warmth. Vaillant, influenced also by Robert Havinghurst’s developmental tasks, comes up with six adult life tasks that he has seen as characteristic of the individuals in the Harvard Study: (1) Identity—achieving a sense of one’s self and independence from parents; (2) Intimacy—living with another person interdependently with commitment and contentment; (3) Career consolidation—assuming a social identity in a world of work; (4) Generativity—unselfishly guiding the next generation, taking care of others; (5) Keeper of the meaning—preserving one’s culture; and (6) Integrity—achieving a sense of world order and spiritual fulfillment, accepting one’s own life cycle. It is, of course, the latter three that receive the author’s attention in a book on aging well.

Curiously, my wife, who is just four years younger than I, has extended and transformed the task of generativity into our old age. She receives such joy and fulfillment in caring for others and unselfishly providing for them that she gives fervent attention to grandchildren: making things for them, corresponding with them, entertaining them, focusing all her energy and attention on them when they are with us. Both of us, however, are finding great pleasure and spending much time as keepers of the meaning. I devote hours each day to the writing of memoirs, cataloging our library and reviewing special books (just as I’m doing right now), preserving stories for our children and grand-children, recording the history of my profession (as in the journal article I was writing, as in a book that I get back to from time to time), admiring and collecting antiques, and cherishing artifacts inherited from our families or associated with our own family as the children were growing up.

Preparing this review, I decided to reread the chapter, “Does Wisdom Increase with Age?” I had either skipped it before, or forgotten it completely. Wisely, I might add. For it is a virtually meaningless chapter, with no case studies at all. In the first place, merely defining wisdom proved difficult it not impossible. In the second place, there appears to be no evidence of a relationship between wisdom and age. The conclusion is, of course, disappointing, but somehow it also relieves one of a certain assumed burden of responsibility: “To be wise about wisdom we need to accept that wisdom does — and does not — increase with age. Age facilitates a widening social radius and more balanced ways of coping with adversity, but thus far no one can prove that wisdom is greater in old age.” So there. Vaillant personally asserts that wisdom involves the toleration of ambiguity and paradox. So I shall be content in tolerating the ambiguities inherent in the concept of wisdom and the paradox that age only SEEMS to make one a sage.

However, it is Vaillant’s new phase — one he added to Erikson’s — that interests me most (no doubt because I have just recently entered that phase myself): he calls it “Keeper of the Meaning.” Politically I am certainly no conservative, though I once thought of myself as an Eisenhower Democrat (and I still refer frequently to Ike’s final speech as President, in which he warned of the threats of the “military/industrial complex"). However, the most important political issues for me now all relate to conservation: the conserving of the environment, of our democratic government and the rights of the people, and of art and artifacts that embody our values, our history, and our sense of “the good, the true, and the beautiful”--especially through education.

“There is a certain peacefulness,” Vaillant maintains, “about becoming interested in genealogy, conservation, and history rather than meeting payrolls, running church rummage sales, and reining in teenagers.” Yes, indeed, my only regrets that come with my 70’s are the grief I suffer upon the loss of friends of my youth, and the realization that I won’t have time to read all those books in my library that I haven’t read yet or would like to read again. The pleasures of old age are infinite if one is reasonably healthy and secure. Do I want to write a history of my profession? a personal memoir? children’s stories based on my own growing up? reviews of books and reflections on poems that have been meaningful to me (like this one)? or a character study of men of my generation? Well, sure. All of the above? To choose is difficult if not impossible; hence, I fear that I tend to flit from one to the other. But, oh, there is such pleasure in the flitting!

“If the task of young adults is to create biological heirs, the task of old age is to create social heirs,” according to Vaillant. The personality characteristics associated with 75-year-old Democrats, the Harvard Study documented, are “introspective, creative and intuitive, cultural, ideational, and sensitive affect.” I’m not sure what all of those mean, but on the surface they sound to me like the ideal man. So once again, I suppose I fit the stereotype. And am glad.

Erikson’s final stage, he calls Integrity. Accepting oneself — one’s inner core, one’s lifelong nature — and facing the inevitability of physical loss and death with equanimity: these are the ultimate requirements of graceful aging. I’m not quite there yet, but maybe two-thirds of the way: I accept myself and my eventual return to the Infinite One. In the meantime, losing my eyesight, my hearing, even my sense of smell, my knees, my energy, my potency, my memory, my ability to stay awake in the daytime and to sleep soundly at night, to do my own income tax, to keep up with my keys and my checkbook, to make decisions when they need to be made -- well, maybe accepting such losses will come with time. But not yet. I still whine a lot.

One Hans Zinsser set down his feelings in the final phase in a sonnet, one quatrain of which reads,

Nor does [death] leap upon me unaware
Like some wild beast that hungers for its prey,
But gives me kindly warning to prepare:
Before I go, to kiss your tears away. . . .

So be it. And so be it.
2 vote bfrank | Dec 8, 2007 |
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0316090077, Paperback)

"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

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:01:31 -0400)

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Documents the essential factors involved in obtaining a happy, healthy old age, and offers practical advice for changing one's lifestyle and aging gracefully and successfully.

(summary from another edition)

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