And, he is writing a book.
“For as long as I can remember, I’ve been fascinated by people’s life stories. My family teases me that I know the background of everyone I meet. I can’t resist asking, and listening,” Cohen told Forest Hills Connection.
“The woman whose unplanned pregnancy kept her from following Jim Jones to Guyana and mass suicide. The medical researcher who survived World War II because of the invention of penicillin, and the 1950s because of the death of Stalin. The actor nominated for an Oscar who still resented his treatment by a sitcom series star. The woman who took two weeks of dictation after the bombs dropped on Japan from a man who led their development. The doctor against whose medical advice Richard Nixon signed out of Walter Reed to face John Kennedy in the presidential debates of 1960.”
Then, about a quarter-century ago, Cohen discovered the Harvard Study of Adult Development, research that began in 1938.
“With my lifelong interest in how people shape their lives, and have their lives shaped by the circumstances they face, I found a study that followed its participants from age 19 through the rest of their lives irresistible,” he said.
The working title of Cohen’s book is A Life You Want. It pulls together longitudinal research and other scientific studies to bring its readers a better chance at satisfying lives. The multi-faceted Cohen also has a writing background, going back to his childhood as a voracious reader.
“Writing was a natural consequence of endless reading,” Cohen said, “and my father and older brother were demanding and superb editors. I still remember how excited I was at age 12 to have The Washington Post publish my letter to the editor. I went on to write book reviews for The Post and The Washington Star (in the days Jonathan Yardley edited its book section), a column and articles for Harvard Magazine, a newsletter in one job, talking points, speeches, and Congressional testimony in another.”
On November 8th, Northwest Neighbors Village sponsored Cohen’s talk on the Harvard study at the Tenley-Friendship Library. The talk was titled “Lessons from Lives? The Harvard Study of Adult Development.” Cohen has shared a summary with us:
In the 1930s, Harvard professor of hygiene Arlen Bock headed the university health service. He thought medicine looked too much at pathology and knew too little about healthy human development. With a multidisciplinary team, and funding from W.T. Grant, a friend and patient of his, Bock recruited 268 19-year-old sophomores as Study subjects. All were white men, 80 percent Protestants, 10 percent Catholics, and 10 percent Jews. Later the Study added 450 Inner City Boston men from a study begun in the 1940s by Sheldon and Eleanor Glueck, who pioneered research into delinquent and criminal behavior; the Inner City men were their control group. Bock’s original plan was to follow the Study participants for 15 to 20 years.
Remarkably more than 90 percent of the original participants continued in the Study throughout their lives. In 2015, the Study moved to a second generation, the children of the original participants and their families. Its title now is the Harvard Second Generation Study.
The Study researchers documented the family backgrounds, physical dimensions, and emotional constitutions of their subjects, and then checked in with them regularly throughout their lives. In his 1995 memoir A Good Life: Newspapering and Other Adventures, participant Ben Bradlee quotes at length from his Study file. The Study papers about another participant, John F. Kennedy, will become public in 2040. The Study helped debunk the model of maximum health from which the researchers began in the 1930s: Nordic, slim hipped, and broad shouldered.
George E. Vaillant, director of the study from 1966 to 2005 and author of Triumphs of Experience: The Men of the Harvard Grant Study, concluded from decades of data that health and longevity turned instead on what he called the five “vascular risk factors”: smoking, alcohol abuse, hypertension, obesity, and Type II diabetes. Men who avoided these risks lived on average 18 years longer than men who didn’t. By contrast, the longevity of the men’s ancestors and the social class into which they were born were far less important.
Those same decades of data took Vaillant to another conclusion, one he didn’t expect: The single most important predictor of success – at work, in terms of physical and mental health, and in relationships – was “the capacity for intimate relationships.” He writes, “There are two pillars of happiness revealed by the … Study … One is love. The other is finding a way of coping with life that does not push love away.”
Vaillant tells the stories of many Study men to illustrate his themes, though he disguises identities to protect confidentiality. Several of his vignettes portray men who began with childhoods that were anything but warm and loving, and struggled as a result. Some, however, found loving relationships in later life. For their sense of life satisfaction in their old age, that change made all the difference.
Most of us have seen people benefit from loving relatives, friends, and mentors. To the extent we are able to extend love and support to our children, grandchildren, extended family, and community, we may contribute in ways that enrich lives.
Additional resources: In July, Cohen traveled to Massachusetts to interview Dr. Robert Waldinger, the director of the study who took over from Vaillant. Waldinger gave a TED Talk in 2015 that has been viewed more than 24 million times.
A note from David: My thanks to Northwest Neighbors Village executive director Stephanie Chong and vice president Jon Lawlor for arranging the talk, and to Forest Hills Connection founder Marlene Berlin for inviting this summary. I welcome your responses, and suggestions of other venues for discussing my project. Please email me at David3209@aol.com.