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Book: Aging Well: Surprising Guideposts to a Happier Life from the Landmark Study of Adult Development

by Eric Barker

There’s a lot of good advice on how to be happier or more productive or how to have better relationships. But tips on how to improve your whole life — something that will last decades and experience countless unpredictable changes — those should be regarded with extreme skepticism.

The only way to really get some good insights would be to follow a lot of people for their entire lives and see what actually works. Luckily, somebody did…

The Study of Adult Development combined three massive longitudinal studies — research projects that followed people from youth until old age — to figure out what makes a good life.

With almost a century of data on nearly 1000 people, there are plenty of insights. We’ll cover 6 big ones that can get you on your path to awesomeness.

From the book Aging Well: Surprising Guideposts to a Happier Life from the Landmark Study of Adult Development:

Sum Up
This is how to make your life awesome:

  • Avoid smoking and alcohol: Duh.

  • Years of education = good: Education seems to increase good habits (and being surrounded by smart, ambitious people never hurts).

  • Have a happy childhood: It’s huge. And surrounding yourself later in life with people who love you can help repair a difficult youth.

  • Relationships are everything: “Happiness is love. Full stop.”

  • Mature coping skills: Stop projecting and stop being passive-aggressive. Use mature defenses like humor when life gets hard. (Yes, immature humor is still mature coping. You’re welcome.)

  • Generativity: Build a good life, a well-rounded self and then give back.

George Vaillant spent so long interviewing people who were receiving Social Security checks that by the time he finished, he was receiving them, too.

His father had been an archaeologist, an arena that he had no interest in. But looking around at the stacks and stacks of reports covering literally thousands of years of people’s lives, he realized, in a way, he’d become an archaeologist too.

His book contains a startling number of insights into what does (and decidedly does not) create a good life. We covered the big ones. So what would happen if you could tell good ol’ George your personal score on the above six recommendations?

On average, he’d be able to predict your health and happiness for the next thirty years.


The Study of Adult Development is a rarity in medicine, for quite deliberately it set out to study the lives of the well, not the sick. In so doing it has integrated three cohorts of elderly men and women—all of whom have been studied continuously for six to eight decades. First, there is a sample of 268 socially advantaged Harvard graduates born about 1920— the longest prospective study of physical and mental health in the world. Second, there is a sample of 456 socially disadvantaged Inner City men born about 1930—the longest prospective study of “blue collar” adult development in the world. Third, there is a sample of 90 middle-class, intellectually gifted women born about 1910—the longest prospective study of women’s development in the world… Like the proverbial half loaf of bread, these studies are not perfect; but for the present they are, arguably, the best lifelong studies of adult development in the world.

George Vaillant is a professor at Harvard Medical School and led the study for over 30 years. His book is Aging Well: Surprising Guideposts to a Happier Life from the Landmark Study of Adult Development: