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

George E. Vaillant
3.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)
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Book Description

Jan. 8 2003
In a unique series of studies, Harvard University has followed 824 subjects from their teens to old age. Professor George Vaillant now uses these to illustrate the surprising factors involved in reaching happy, healthy old age.

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Aging Well: Surprising Guideposts to a Happier Life from the Landmark Study of Adult Development + Triumphs of Experience: The Men of the Harvard Grant Study + Spiritual Evolution: How We Are Wired for Faith, Hope, and Love
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From Amazon

"We all need models for how to live from retirement to past 80--with joy," writes George Vaillant, M.D., director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development. This groundbreaking book pulls together data from three separate longevity studies that, beginning in their teens, followed 824 individuals for more than 50 years. The subjects were male Harvard graduates; inner-city, disadvantaged males; and intellectually gifted women.

"Here you have these wonderful files, and you seem little interested in how we cope with increasing age ... our adaptability, our zest for life," one of these subjects wrote to Vaillant, a researcher, psychiatrist, and Harvard Medical School professor, about how he was using this information. Vaillant took this advice to heart. In Aging Well, he presents personal narratives about people from these studies whom he interviewed personally in their 70s and 80s. He describes their history, relationships, hardships, philosophies, and sources of joy. We learn their perspectives and what makes them want to get up in the morning.

We also learn what makes old age vital and interesting. Vaillant discusses the important adult developmental tasks, such as identity, intimacy, and generativity (giving to the next generation), and provides important clues to a healthy, meaningful, satisfying old age. Health in old age, we learn, is not predicted by low cholesterol or ancestral longevity, but by factors such as a stable marriage, adaptive coping style (the ability to make lemonade out of life's lemons), and regular exercise.

Vaillant is empathetic and sometimes surprisingly poetic: "Owning an old brain, you see, is rather like owning an old car.... Careful driving and maintenance are everything." He freely includes subjective observations and interpretations, giving us a richer picture of the people he interviewed and insights into their lives. Aging Well is recommended for readers who are interested in learning about the quality-of-life issues of aging from the people who have the most to teach. --Joan Price --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Publishers Weekly

This groundbreaking sociological analysis is based on three research projects that followed over 800 people from their adolescence through old age. Subjects were drawn from the Harvard Grant study of white males, the Inner City study of non-delinquent males and the Terman Women study of gifted females, begun respectively in 1921, 1930 and 1911. In all three studies, subjects were interviewed at regular intervals over time, a design that prevented observations from being skewed by the distortions of memory and allowed for analyses that distinguished effect from cause. Vaillant (The Natural History of Alcoholism), a psychiatrist and professor at the Harvard Medical School, brings a nuanced point of view and an acceptance of the project's limitations. (Those followed were not randomly selected and were overwhelmingly Caucasian.) Nevertheless the author makes compelling use of his data, which is based on intensive contacts with a variety of subjects. Vaillant posits that successful physical and emotional aging is most dependent on a lack of tobacco and alcohol abuse by subjects, an adaptive coping style, maintaining healthy weight with some exercise, a sustained loving (in most cases, marital) relationship and years of education. This is good news since factors that cannot be altered, such as ancestral longevity, parental characteristics and childhood temperament, were among those ruled out as predictors. The book's academic tone will reassure some readers and put others off, but Vaillant's arresting interviews with selected subjects (recounted here) and his ability to learn from the subjects make this an outstanding contribution to the study of aging. National publicity.

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

--This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Customer Reviews

Most helpful customer reviews
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars More confusion than clarity about aging Feb. 2 2002
"Aging Well" is a book that does not clearly establish what it wants to say specifically about aging. Is it a book about longevity or is it a textbook on adult development? A main purpose of the author is to convey the findings of a multi-decade study of three distinct groups totaling about 800 individuals as they aged: a male Harvard student cohort born in 1920; a male inner city cohort born about 1930; and a gifted female cohort born in California about 1910. However the emphasis is on the Harvard cohort, a group that most assuredly stands apart from typical American lives. All of the interviewees were at least 70 years of age by 2000 but the specific commonality of longevity seems to get lost in the author's focus on more general social and emotional developmental concerns. However, the author establishes little connection between longevity and such development.
Perhaps the biggest problem with the book is that only a very limited, and at times inadequate, overview is presented regarding various social and emotional developmental topics. The author bases the entire book on Erik Erikson's ideas about adult developmental stages, which in his interpretation consists of the sequential tasks of identity, intimacy, career consolidation, generativity, keeper of the meaning, and integrity. There is no discussion about the legitimacy of those ideas or whether there are alternative ideas. The principal means of elaborating on those views is by presenting mini-profiles of about 50 individuals throughout the book who supposedly have or have not attained a particular level of development. It is burdensome for the reader to be presented with so many case studies to weigh.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars If you must it, check it out from the library July 28 2002
By A Customer
If you have read the excerpt available on this site, you have already read the best part of the book, so don't bother purchasing it.
There are a lot of things wrong with this book, but I think the most glaring is the author's utterly un-subtle understanding of human nature. Unfortunately in an effort to preserve participant privacy, the author "disguised" the identities of his subjects. What that means in practical terms is that all "examples" of "real" lives are actually composites which have essentially been fabricated by the author. Now, I would be okay with that if the author was a talented novelist with the ability to preserve poigniant detail while sacrificing factuality. But sadly, this is not the case. There is not a single life-story in the book that takes up more than a few pages and for this reason alone, they are all disappointing simplifications. The scant space spent on each life story is even more disconcerting when you think that this guy has access to 50 or 60 years of these people's histories! There is one and only one example that gets an even close to humanizing portrayal: that is the example you find in the excerpt available on-line. (And even that reads like a fairy tale.) Most other vignettes are about 2 pages, surely not enough to do anyone justice, even the most one-sided person. In fact almost every character introduced fits into one of two catagories: Mr. Joe Popular (with loving wife, great kids, super career and cloying "aw-shucks" attitude) or Mr. Sad-sack (with no friends, multiple divorces, no contact with kids and utter career directionlessness). These are fine as arche-types, but after a few hundred pages, you really get the feeling that the author is actually INCAPABLE of reccognizing any greater level of nuance in the human experience.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinatin' Data April 22 2002
This is an outstanding book if for no other reason that it describes in detail not one, but three studies that have followed selected groups of individuals from youth through old age over the course of the twentieth century. Two of the groups studied were drawn largely from people of privilege, but the third most assuredly was not.
The author became the ultimate caretaker of the data from the largest studies as part of his work at Harvard. As perhaps a sign of the times, the data from that study, which once was recorded painstakingly in ledger volumes now sits in his hard drive (one hopes carefully backed up). Simply learning that these studies existed was an eye-opener for me. What treasures!
Though Vaillant happily draws a number of subjective conclusions from the data in the course of this book, he provides substantial information about the objective facts from which his conclusions are drawn. The reader is educated sufficiently to differ with confidence when so moved. The author's periodic confessions of how his views on various study participants evolved of the course of many years is a rather charming demonstration of aging well in its own right. This book is not intended as a scholarly work, however, and the data are not reproduced in full.
I thought the descriptions of individuals who participated in the study, disguised though they might be, and of the author himself, to be the most interesting part of the book. Though they prevent _Aging Well_ from being a simple "Guide To Enjoying Being Old," the participant profiles provide considerable nuance and subtlety as the author ponders the age-old question, how are we to make the best of our lot in life?
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Most recent customer reviews
2.0 out of 5 stars Liberal bias
Given the usual tendancy of liberal academicians to deny their obvious bias against moderates and conservatives, it was refreshing to see Vaillant admit a few of his biases (and... Read more
Published on Oct. 30 2003
4.0 out of 5 stars A good foundation for creating a philosophy about aging
Mountains of research was reviewed to write this book. For that effort I added an additional star to the three I gave for the book itself. Read more
Published on April 19 2003 by booklover
3.0 out of 5 stars A Useful Pop-Psych Antidote to Aging Poorly
With around 320 pages of main text, not counting the appendices, Vaillant takes some time to present a popularization of several longitudinal studies of adult development, and to... Read more
Published on March 17 2003 by Kenneth Young
1.0 out of 5 stars They didn't even use an original title
Skip this one and go for the original AGING WELL by Dr. Jeanne Wei, which came out a couple of years before this..., which even uses a similar jacket design! Read more
Published on Jan. 4 2003
5.0 out of 5 stars Best nonfiction book I have read
While one cannot take the author literally as to each item or recommendation (and the author probably does not expect you to), this insightful text has many great ideas for staying... Read more
Published on Sept. 14 2002
4.0 out of 5 stars A promising book
I just read some 20 pages of excerpt from this book. Really promises to be an interesting and informative read. Read more
Published on Jan. 20 2002 by Sandeep
5.0 out of 5 stars GROW OLD GRACEFULLY!
While many individuals may find the reading is too classic textbook and dry for their liking, as one who has studied behavioural psychology, I found the book extremely... Read more
Published on Jan. 17 2002 by Sandra D. Peters
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