Using Research to Promote Human Thriving
The Harvard Study and Lifespan Research Foundation
The joint mission of the Harvard Study of Adult Development (HSAD) and the Lifespan Research Foundation (LRF) is to promote and use the findings of adult lifespan research to enable people to live healthier lives filled with meaning, connection, and purpose.
Our study’s goal is to find answers to what makes a happy and meaningful life.
- Researching who will become active and vigorous octogenarians and who will age poorly.
- Finding what experiences in childhood are more predictive of midlife health.
- Discovering if parents’ thriving marriages predict thriving marriages among their children.
- Learning how adolescents and young adults can build lives of meaning and purpose amid rapid social and technological change.
- Understanding how lifestyle choices are linked with how long we live.
The Study Through Generations
In 1938 the Harvard Study of Adult Development (HSAD) was launched as a result of the generosity of W.T. Grant. He sought “to help people live more contentedly and peacefully and well in body and mind through a better knowledge of how to use and enjoy all the good things that the world has to offer them.” His commitment to this groundbreaking study of human thriving was visionary for its time. The Study continues to serve Mr. Grant’s vision, as we now embark on a landmark study of the 3rd and 4th generation descendants of the original participants. In this phase, we will focus on some of the biggest questions facing us today.
The parents of our original participants were interviewed in their homes to get in-depth pictures of their family lives, child rearing practices, and hopes for the future.
The Study followed the entire adult lives of two very different groups of men recruited in the late 1930s and early 1940s: (1) 268 Harvard College undergraduates recruited for a study of “the best and the brightest,” and (2) 456 severely disadvantaged boys recruited from Boston’s poorest neighborhoods. Physical and mental health, careers, and close relationships of both groups of men were assessed at regular intervals throughout their adult lives, providing insight into vital questions about the human life course, such as:
- What makes for a happy and meaningful life?
- Can we predict who will become active and vigorous octogenarians and who will age poorly?
- What lifestyle choices are linked with how long we live?
- What is the impact of major societal events like WWII and the upheaval of the 1960s on adult development?
The Study expanded to include more than 1,300 of the baby boomer daughters and sons of these original men to examine how childhood adversity impacts midlife health, and how parents’ social and physical health predicts the well-being of their offspring. We have already followed this sample to a second wave of assessment to study Internet use, health, and relationships. Some of the important cross-generational questions we are examining include:
- Do parents’ thriving marriages predict thriving marriages among their children?
- Which accounts of childhood are more predictive of midlife health — parents’ eyewitness accounts or children’s reconstructed memories of their childhoods?
Returning to Generation 2
In the next wave of our research, the Study will take a deeper dive into Generation 2. We plan to address three core themes:
- Purpose and meaning: How do motivation and a sense of purpose in life change as we age? How does a global crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic change our views of ourselves and what is important to us? How do experiences in the family, at work, and with peers promote passionate engagement in life in the context of rapid societal change?
- Community engagement: In our society, powerful cultural influences glorify individual achievement and happiness. What attitudes and experiences (in the family, with peers, at work) promote investment in the well-being of the community and the nation? What conclusions can we draw to inform how institutions might promote community involvement in rising generations?
- Attention, relationships, and the role of electronic media: How do electronic media (screens, social media) shape patterns of attention and information acquisition, and how does this influence engagement in real-time relationships and activities? What makes some adults more vulnerable to the negative effects of electronic media? What can the research tell us that would help families, media providers, and others to maximize the positive value of electronic media on relationships?
On the Horizon
In its 9th decade, the Harvard Study of Adult Development, a unique and precious resource for understanding adult psychological and physical development across generations, continues its voyage of discovery, adding new information to its treasure trove of data, and fueling the Lifespan Research Foundation with knowledge to enable people to live healthier lives filled with meaning, connection, and purpose. W.T. Grant’s groundbreaking vision continues to inspire new research that benefits the world.