What does it mean to age successfully and retire happy? How do you define a life that’s worth living?
While these are deeply personal questions, according to the most in-depth study of its kind in history, when you consider what it means to be happy, there are a few common threads by which all of us are bound.
When it comes to the psychology of retirement and happiness, George E. Vaillant probably knows as much as anyone. Born in 1934, Vaillant is an American psychiatrist and professor at Harvard Medical School, and the Director of the Study of Adult Development at Harvard’s Health Services Center.
Is he merely a passionate academic, or is there more than meets the eye?
Besides an interest in the emotional health of mankind, the motivation behind Vaillant spending his life studying happiness in older adults is, in fact, deeply personal. In 1945, Vaillant’s career path was created when, as an 11-year old boy, he discovered his father, George Clapp Vaillant, dead from suicide.
As part of his mission to identify the chief influencers of happiness, and to develop treatments for what ailed his own father, Vaillant has spent the 2nd half of his illustrious career as the director of a now 85-year old longitudinal Harvard study on aging and happiness. This is what he’s found.
That the 4 qualities that lead to a meaningful and fulfilling retirement are:
- Hope (a positive anticipation of the future)
- Gratitude (thankfulness and forgiveness)
- Empathy (seeing through others’ eyes)
- Engagement (curiosity and learning, sharing experiences with others)
And that these positive qualities can actually be nurtured:
Importantly, Vaillant found that these four qualities (hope, gratitude, empathy and engagement) aren’t just the luck of the draw, but that they can be developed and nurtured. Practicing them, Vaillant found, means that they can become part of the process by which happiness is achieved.
In his groundbreaking book: “Triumph of Experience,” Vaillant declared that “The big finding is that you can teach an aging dog new tricks. That people can keep changing and improving all the way through life, even in their 80s and 90s.”
Lastly, that “It’s not the bad that dooms us, It’s the good that saves us.”
Ever optimistic, in spite of his own tragedy, Vaillant found that “It’s all about positive and healthy relationships: it’s not the bad things that doom us, but the good people who happen to us that facilitate an enjoyable old age. The positive effect of one loving relative, mentor or friend can overwhelm the negative effects of the bad things that happen.”
This positivity is, in fact, a two-way street. In the same way we can benefit from our association with people who care about us—those who love and protect us— Vaillant found that we can also thrive by reaching out, caring for, and nurturing others along the way.
Having read about the 85-year long Harvard study, and his commitment to happiness in retirement, what practical step(s) could you take today based upon Vaillant's insights into aging well?