Today's Reading

So if you're going to make that one choice, that single decision that could best ensure your own health and happiness, science tells us that your choice should be to cultivate warm relationships. Of all kinds. As we'll show you, it's not a choice that you make only once, but over and over again, second by second, week by week, and year by year. It's a choice that has been found in one study after another to contribute to enduring joy and flourishing lives. But it's not always an easy one to make. As human beings, even with the best intentions, we get in our own way, make mistakes, and get hurt by the people we love. The path to the good life, after all, isn't easy, but successfully navigating its twists and turns is entirely possible. The Harvard Study of Adult Development can point the way.


The Harvard Study of Adult Development began in Boston when the United States was fighting its way out of the Great Depression. As New Deal projects like Social Security and unemployment insurance gained momentum, there was a growing interest in understanding what factors made human beings thrive, as opposed to what factors made them fail. This new interest led two unrelated groups of researchers in Boston to initiate research projects closely following two very different groups of boys.

The first was a group of 268 sophomores at Harvard College, selected because they were deemed likely to grow into healthy and well-adjusted men. In the spirit of the time, but well ahead of his contemporaries in the medical community, Arlie Bock, Harvard's new professor of hygiene and chief of Student Health Services, wanted to move away from a research focus on what made people sick to a focus on what made people healthy. At least half of the young men chosen for the study were able to attend Harvard only with the aid of scholarships and by holding down jobs to help pay tuition, and some came from well-to-do families. Some could trace their roots in America to the founding of the country, and 13 percent of them had parents who had immigrated to the U.S.

The second was a group of 456 inner-city Boston boys like Henry Keane, selected for a different reason: they were children who grew up in some of Boston's most troubled families and most disadvantaged neighborhoods, but who, at age 14, had mostly succeeded in avoiding the paths to juvenile delinquency that some of their peers were following. More than 60 percent of these adolescents had at least one parent who immigrated to the U.S., most from poor areas of Eastern and Western Europe and areas in or near the Middle East, such as Greater Syria and Turkey. Their modest roots and immigrant status made them doubly marginalized. Sheldon and Eleanor Glueck, a lawyer and a social worker, respectively, initiated this study in an attempt to understand which life factors prevented delinquency, and these boys had succeeded on that front.

These two studies began separately and with their own aims, but were later merged, and now operate under the same banner.

When they joined their respective studies, all of the inner-city and Harvard participants were interviewed. They were given medical exams. Researchers went to their homes and interviewed their parents. And then these teenagers grew up into adults who entered all walks of life. They became factory workers and lawyers and bricklayers and doctors. Some developed alcoholism. A few developed schizophrenia. Some climbed the social ladder from the bottom all the way to the very top, and some made that journey in the opposite direction.

The founders of the Harvard Study would be shocked and delighted to see that it still continues today, generating unique and important findings they couldn't have imagined. And as the current director (Bob) and associate director  (Marc), we are incredibly proud to bring some of these findings to you.


Human beings are full of surprises and contradictions. We don't always make sense, even (or maybe especially) to ourselves. The Harvard Study gives us a unique and practical tool to see through some of this natural human mystery. Some quick scientific context will help explain why.

Studies of human health and behavior generally come in two flavors: "cross-sectional" and "longitudinal." Cross-sectional studies take a slice out of the world at a given moment and look inside, much the way you might cut into a layer cake to see what it's made of. Most psychological and health studies fall into this category because they are cost efficient to conduct. They take a finite amount of time and have predictable costs. But they have a fundamental limitation, which Bob likes to illustrate with the old joke that if you relied only on cross-sectional surveys, you'd have to conclude that there are people in Miami who are born Cuban and die Jewish. In other words, cross-sectional studies are "snapshots" of life, and can prompt us to see connections between two unconnected things because they omit one crucial variable: time.

Longitudinal studies, on the other hand, are what they sound like. Long. They examine lives through time. There are two ways to do this. The first we've already mentioned, and it's the most common: you ask people to remember the past. This is known as a retrospective study.

This excerpt ends on page 13 of the hardcover edition.

Monday we begin the book QUEENS OF THE AGE OF CHIVALRY by Alison Weir. 

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