Author: Robin Avery |


George E. Vaillant, MD. New York: Little, Brown & Co., 2002. Pp. 273. $14.99. ISBN 0-316-09007-7. Pb. Reviewed by Kathryn R. Ward and Geoffrey W. Sutton (Evangel University/Springfield, MO-REVIEW AMENDED BY RACR).

What are the key factors in successful aging? Dr. Vaillant, a noted psychiatrist, researcher, and director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development provides a lucid summary of the findings from the longest longitudinal study of adult development. He offers readers a comprehensive look at a wide range of data in the context of developmental theories. He supports the quantitative findings with salient participant examples that enhance his conclusions and make the work highly readable.

Vaillant divides the book into 12 chapters followed by 11 appendices, research notes, acknowledgments, and various tables and figures. He begins the first chapter with a brief introduction, followed by the basis for the study—not only to observe the process of development but also to understand the factors that influence the process. Next, he defines the variables. For example, he operationally defines successful aging as a “vital reaction to change, to disease, and to conflict” (p. 15), which he continually demonstrates by using excerpts from participant interviews.

He digresses into an examination of the three groups in the study. Formerly individual studies were combined to create the present meta-project. He concludes chapter one with a personal introduction, a disclosure of his biases, and an overview of the advantages and limitations of these prospective studies. In chapter two, Vaillant describes social and emotional maturation. Erikson’s developmental 184 BOOK REVIEWS tasks form the base for the assessment of social development. These were supplemented by two new tasks of career consolidation and keeper of the meaning.

He assessed emotional development using measures based on psychoanalytic coping mechanisms. In chapter three, Vaillant discusses the study’s data on the relationship between childhood factors and adult development. He summarizes the research by stating that “what goes right in childhood predicts the future far better than what goes wrong” (p. 95).

Chapters four through six provide detailed descriptions of the assessments of later adult developmental tasks (generativity, keeper of the meaning, and integrity). All of the findings seem to have supported his earlier hypothesis: that each task (not necessarily all together—some participants did not go through keeper of the meaning) is a predictor of successful aging in its own right. Vaillant mentions in chapter six that mastery of prior tasks is not necessary for successful mastery of later adulthood tasks, but it improves the odds. Physical health is an obvious factor for successful aging. Chapter seven tackles this aspect of aging by focusing primarily on psychosocial health. The study’s measurement consisted of categorizing the participants into two groups: the Happy-Well and the Sad-Sick.

In chapters eight, nine, and ten, he explains the roles of factors such as play, wisdom, and religion. The data support significant positive correlations between the three and successful aging, perhaps though, not in the way one would presume. For example, the research showed that religion played a more important role for those with few social supports than for those who had higher social supports.

In chapter eleven, he discusses the old adage: the more things change, the more they stay the same, to describe personality development throughout the lifespan. Vaillant found that personality traits in adolescence were strong predictors of the same traits in adulthood.

Vaillant brings his work to a close (chapter twelve) by using a garden analogy to summarize the peaceful presence of tending the garden of life and enjoying the fruits of success.

Look for my next column, titled “HaHaHa - Guideposts Along the Way”

Robin Avery- Gerontologist
Retreat at Church Ranch