The Grant Study began in 1938, tracking a group of 268 students at Harvard University, and these students have now been observed and interviewed over nine decades. The results are quite revealing and inspiring.
Dr. George Vaillant is the storyteller of the study and the “curator” of these men’s lives. What he shares about his findings validates the power of love in our lives, the enormous importance of early life bonding and nurturance, but also the hopeful reality that those of us who had less than perfect parents can make up for their deficits.
About 65 percent of the population is known to have “secure” attachments with their parents—this is the result of feeling nurtured and attuned to as a child. The other 35 percent have “insecure” attachments, and this results in people who tend to be overly independent, clinging or ambivalent about forming close bonds with other people.
What I observe for those of us who had inadequate bonding with our parents is that we need to be careful about the kind of people we choose for romantic partners. We have a tendency to choose people who also may not be very good at bonding. This makes for a difficult and unsatisfying journey. We can help ourselves by looking for potential partners who are comfortable with intimacy, good at bonding, and capable of attuning to us, because this is one way we can earn a secure attachment for ourselves.
And that’s the good news—even if we didn’t start out with a secure attachment, it’s possible to earn a secure attachment. George Vaillant tells one story of a man who is severely deprived of companionship by his parents. This contributes to the man feeling so inadequate that he unsuccessfully attempts to kill himself.
The man then becomes terribly ill and ends up in a hospital where he is cared for in such a loving way that it is a transformative experience. As a result of finally receiving some of the companionship and care that he never received as a child, this man emotionally grows up, eventually becoming a loving parent himself.
There are many profound lessons to be learned from the Grant Study, and in coming weeks I will share more of them with you. For today, I want to share George Vaillant’s closing comments in an interview he gave about what makes us happy. He said, “Happiness is love (full stop).”
After studying the lives of 268 men, over nine decades . . . this is the conclusion—happiness is love. So, how do we structure our lives to experience more love? If we are parents, how do we help our children feel loved? If we are adults who didn’t feel loved, how do we put ourselves in positions where positive emotions are likely to be born?