top of page

Aging Well, The Harvard Study

Erik Erickson, one of the first social scientists to study adult development in terms of positive progress, saw it as a widening path outward. In a sense, healthy aging is expansive.

The author of Aging Well: Surprising Guideposts to a Happier Life, from the Landmark Harvard Study of Adult Development, George E. Vaillant, M.D., built on Erickson's theory in his work. Vaillant worked as the longest serving director of the now 80 year-old study of human development, The Harvard Study.

This book is a result of George Vaillant's unique position in which he was able to use a wide lens to see how humans age. He uses a metaphor of a stone that is dropped into a pond to describe human aging;

"it produces ever-expanding ripples, each older ripple encompassing but not obliterating, the circle emanating for the next ripple".

The study's major findings show that:

"Close relationships, more than money or fame, are what keep people happy throughout their lives. Those ties protect people from life’s discontents, help to delay mental and physical decline, and are better predictors of long and happy lives than social class, IQ, or even genes."

Aging Well is filled with an abundance of evidence that reminds us to keep our friends close and the screen door open!


Read to Discover

Life Tasks - Social and Emotional Maturation

How Your Past Effects You

Keys to Successful Aging

Keys to Healthy Aging

The Brain and Aging

A Good Retirement

Wisdom and Aging

Spirituality, Religion and Aging

Life Tasks - Social and Emotional Maturation

The members of the study were studied by using a model of six sequential tasks. Some of these tasks came from Erikson's work. Erikson used the term stages, where one had to be completed before the other started. Vaillant notes that the tasks in his model may be done out of order. The tasks and stages are a way to make sense of where humans are on the development path.

Identity - A sense of oneself, unique values and passions that are not from parents.

Members of the study who did not reach Identity were not able to find and maintain gratifying work, nor did they have a longtime intimate friendship.

Intimacy - Expanding oneself to include another person.

Career Consolidation - Expanding one's personal identity to assume an identity within the world of work. Vaillant distinguishes between a hobby and a career. A career has contentment, compensation, competence, and commitment.

Generativity - The demonstration of a clear capacity to unselfishly guide the next generation. People who master this task care for others and give away their knowledge.

"Study cohorts master of Generativity tripled the chances that the decade of the 70's would be for these men and woman a time of joy and not of despair."

Keeper of the Meaning - This task is likened to the role of the wise judge.

"The focus of a Keeper of the Meaning is on conservation and preservation of the collective products of mankind - the culture in which one lives and its institutions - rather than on just the development of its children."

Integrity - An experience which conveys a broad dimension and spiritual sense.

How Your Past Effects You

The events experienced in childhood may help or harm the ability to make relationships and develop social supports. It determines whether one trusts, has hope and initiative.


1. A sad childhood predicts mental illness in adult life whereas a warm childhood protects against mental illness.

2. Men with unhappy childhoods find it hard to play when they get older.

3. The link between a warm childhood and happy older age is clear. Those was felt mistrust carried it through their lives.

4. Those who were brought up in a loveless home were likely to be friendless at the end of life.

Keys to Successful Aging

Those who master Generativity have the strongest foundation for a happy old age. They put into the world what was not there before.

"Successful aging means giving to others joyously whenever one is able, receiving from other gratefully whenever one needs it, and being greedy enough to develop one's own self in between." ~ M. H. Oden

There are four, hard to quantify, personal qualities that to lead to successful aging.

1. The ability to anticipate, plan and hope.

2. The capacity for gratitude and forgiveness and optimism.

3. Posessing the quality of being able to imagine the world as it seems to another person, the capacity to love and to hold the other empathetically, but loosely.

4. The desire to do things with people, not to people, or not to ruminate that they do things to us.

In other words - to live wide.

Keys to Healthy Aging

Healthy aging was measured by assessing physical health, psychosocial health and death. Vaillant said it was hard to measure psychosocial health. He quotes:

"What a world of difference there is between being ill in the eyes of your doctor and feeling sick when you get out of bed to face the day.

Good self-care, high morale, intimate friends, and mental health often make the difference between being "ill" and feeling "sick." He used the terms Happy-Well and Sad-Sick to describe the differences.

Six contrasting dimensions of health were used.

1. Absence of objective physical disabiity at age 75

2. Subjective physical health at age 75

3. Length of undisabled life

4. Objective mental health

5. Objective social supports

6. Subjective life satisfaction* - Reseachers felt this was important to quantify so they asked over a twenty- year period if the participant had enjoyed their:

  • Marriage

  • Income-producing work

  • Children

  • Friendships and social contacts

  • Hobbies

  • Community service activities

  • Religion

  • Recreation/sports.

*To meet the happy-well criteria the participant had to score two of the above eight activities as "Very Satisfying".

These variables predicted by age 50 whether a person would be enjoying age 80:

First, a look look at what DOES NOT predict healthy aging:

  • Ancestral longevity

  • Cholesterol

  • Stress

  • Parental characteristics

  • Childhood temperament

  • Ease in social relationships

Variables that DO:

  • Length of education - Higher education correlated to physical health in old age and not high IQ or parental income. Reasons may be that more education tended to encourage people to take a long range view and stop smoking, eat right and drink in moderation.

  • Not being a smoker or stopping young - The largest single predictive factor of healthy aging is not being a heavy smoker before the age of fifty.

  • Adaptive coping style - This the second most powerful predictor of being of the Happy-Well status.

  • Absence of alcohol abuse. - This is the only protective factor that strongly predicted both psychosocial and physical health.

  • Healthy weight- Obesity is only negative for physical health.

  • Stable marriage - Good for both physical and psychosocial health.

  • Exercise - Good for both physical and psychosocial health.

Being well in old age is not predicted by our genes as much as it is in ourselves. Social supports are one of the most important dimensions of aging. These are defined as being closely connected with spouses, children, siblings, friends religious groups and social networks. It is imperative at all ages to cultivate a rich social network.

The Brain and Aging

Brain imaging tells us that normal brain shrinkage is less than was previously feared and much of its cell loss is selective. In the study 90% of the men who had reached 80 had normal brain function. The brain of an 80 year old can do almost everything a younger person's brain can do; "it just takes longer and must begin earlier."

The normal act of forgetting names, phone numbers is not related to Alzheimers. Older adults remain just as skilled at remembering emotionally charged events as young people.

A Good Retirement

"Retirement should be at least as much fun as fourth grade."

Retirement is stressful when it is forced or unplanned and when there are no social supports.

For a good retirement people should:

  • Replace work friends with a social network.

  • Rediscover how to play.

  • Explore creativity.

  • Continue learning.

Wisdom and Aging

Evidence does not show that wisdom increases with age. Experience does matter.

Vaillant says:

"to be wise about wisdom we need to accept that wisdom does- and wisdom 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."

Spirituality, Religion and Aging

"The surprise of the Study was that the presence or absence of either spirituality or religious adherence had little association with maturity of defenses, with successful aging, and with Generativity. It did not matter whether the Study labeled faith as strength of religious affiliation or as the depth of one's spirituality. Neither religion nor spirituality was any more salient in old age than it had been in midlife."

Judge Oliver Holmes, one of the study's participants, reported that his satisfaction with religion declined with age. He related more to a spiritual feeling of "centering down".

The author writes: growing older does make the conditions favorable to increasing spirituality. Life is lived slower and daily routines are simpler. Physical changes cause a need for acceptance. This allows time for internal quiet and reflection. Deeply spiritual study members scored high in successful aging.

"Spirituality is manifested in the inner life - where music lives."

bottom of page