Adaptation to Life by George E. Vaillant, MD

Adaptation to Life is a report on the original Grant Study, which consists of a group of 237 physically and mentally healthy Harvard college sophomores from the classes of 1939-1944. Members of the samples have been evaluated and/or interviewed every two years since then.

Longitudinal research (the study of the same people over a period of time) allows for “telling a life story” as it actually happened, rather than how it might be recalled (or told later).  This enhances our ability to look more squarely at how things turn out rather than rely upon anecdotes and memory.

This book, originally published in 1977,  was published when the Harvard men were in their mid-fifties.  At the time this book was published, it caused quite a stir because President John Kennedy (as well as a Cabinet member and several members of the US Senate) was a student at Harvard during the time the Grant Study began.  The notoriety of the book helped popularize the field of adult human development and aging. However, it is his telling of the stories of how coping mechanisms work and how they influence the paths of peoples’ lives that has made a lasting contribution.

In this book, Dr. Vailant, a psychoanalyst and a psychiatrist, discusses the various outcomes of his research subject’s lives in terms of coping mechanisms and defenses.  His description of the coping mechanisms and examples drawn from his research subjects are very clearly written.

Dr. Vailant is an excellent and entertaining writer which makes his discussion of research very interesting. Although they are not “perfect” studies, largely because of the limited samples, there has been very little longitudinal research that has been done on the entire adult lifespan. It contributes greatly to what we know without negating the need to know more.

Another recommended book by the same author, Aging Well, describes the results of this study when the surviving sample is in their 80’s.

Amazon Link to Adaptation to Life