Sex & Relationships

Harvard Study: Aging Liberal Men Have More Sex than Conservative Counterparts

One of the longest-running studies of adult development in history delivers four surprising findings.

Between 1939 and 1944, researchers at Harvard University recruited 268 of the best and brightest members of the student body to participate in a long-term psychological study. The purpose of the Harvard Grant Study—so called for its original funder, chain-store magnate William T. Grant—was to determine which traits best predict a successful life. To track a wide range of factors, including income, physical and mental health, and happy marital and parental relationships, the chosen students (all men, as Harvard wouldn’t become coed until 1977) participated in regular interviews, physical and psychiatric exams, and surveys with researchers. The surviving participants are now in their 90s, making the Grant Study one of the longest-running prospective studies of adult development ever conducted. Triumphs of Experience, a recent book published by George Vaillant, who directed the study for more than three decades, reveals some of the most interesting findings.

1. Beware of Alcohol Abuse

On its own, this statement isn’t too surprising; it’s long been known that sustained heavy drinking can lead to severe health problems. But Vaillant, who calls alcoholism a “disorder of great destructive power,” insists it has other equally significant, devastating consequences. For example, alcoholism is the single strongest cause of divorce between the Grant Study men and their wives. The Harvard researchers also found that it was strongly coupled with neurosis and depression, with these psychological traits following alcohol abuse rather than preceding it. And together with cigarette smoking, alcohol abuse was the #1 cause of morbidity and death among the study participants.

2. Liberals Have More Sex

In one of the oddest discoveries, researchers found that aging liberals had much more active sex lives than their conservative counterparts. Though political ideology had no bearing on overall life satisfaction, the conservative participants ended their sex lives at around age 68 on average, while most liberal men continued having sex regularly well into their 80s. Vaillant was himself puzzled by this, noting that he’d consulted urologists about the findings but “they have no idea why it might be so.”

3. Moms Matter

The relationship between participants and their mothers was found to be a critical factor in determining lifelong well-being. While researchers found a powerful correlation between the warmth of the men's relationships generally and their health and happiness later in life, the dynamic between mother and son was found to be particularly influential. According to their findings, men who had “warm” childhood relationships with their mothers earned $87,000 more annually than men who had distant maternal ties. Fittingly, their boyhood relationships with their mothers were also associated with effectiveness at work. Among the other physical and psychological benefits: men who had poor childhood relationships with their moms were much more likely to develop dementia in old age. 

4. Personality Is Not Static

One of the main advantages of longitudinal studies is the ability to track change over time. What Vaillant found in his decades of speaking to and studying the Grant Study men is that personality is a constantly shifting, evolving set of traits, not an ironclad description of what a human being is like. From his perspective, adult development continues long after adolescence, as people experience and are altered by major life events like marriage, divorce, career changes and the birth of children. The participants who were determined to have the most successful lives accepted the fundamentally haphazard courses of their lives, rather than fixating on regrets and missed opportunities. As one of the participants, Charles Boatwright (all names have been changed), explained at the age of 79, “The things you felt so passionate about when you were young, you learn to let go of. You realize that all those things you thought you were going to be, you ain’t. As I have often said, at this stage in life it’s not what you’ve accomplished in a day, but how the day felt.”

The Grant Study is flawed in many ways, including the small sample size and lack of gender, economic or racial diversity. But it is a fascinating look at how patterns of growth, development and nurturing can determine patterns of life satisfaction. Vaillant’s most important finding, in his own estimation, is one that all of us can relate to: “The 75 years and $20 million expended on the Grant Study points to a straightforward five-word conclusion: Happiness is love. Full stop.”   

Allegra Kirkland is AlterNet's associate managing editor. Her writing has appeared in the Chicago Reader, Salon, Daily Serving and The Nation.