When science measures LONG TERM success… And why it should matter to you

Bradley Pope
Feb 22, 2017 · 4 min read
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When it comes to track and field, most athletes focus on a specialty or two. They may excel in a single event like the pole vault, but perform poorly at distance or throwing events. If we were looking for the best all-around athlete, we’d need something like a decathlon to settle the score. Instead of a single event, a decathlon is a made up of ten very different disciplines. Athletes are measured on a cumulative score from performances on all ten events and their success depends on a range of underlying factors like speed, strength, agility and overall athleticism.

Measuring LONG TERM success is tricky for the same reason. While individuals might excel in one area of life, like making money or simply living a long time, this doesn’t paint a complete picture of a long, successful existence. In addition, the definition of success itself can be very subjective and varies greatly by each person.

Is it possible to set objective criteria that cover occupational success, mental and physical health, biological success, and good relationships? In his book Triumphs of Experience, George E. Vaillant proposes ten life outcomes then measures against them.

As the director of Harvard’s Study of Adult Development, Vaillant conducted an intense longitudinal study on 268 college-aged men over more than the next 75 years of their lives. The study required interviewing the participants childhood family and friends, then continually monitoring and questioning participants as they aged.

Vaillant then defined a “decathlon of flourishing”. Since a single definition of a long successful life would be too narrow, criteria for what defined a “flourishing” life from ages 60 to 80 included the following:

Included in the Who’s Who in America
Earning income in the study’s top quartile
Low in psychological distress
Success and enjoyment in work, love, and play since age 65
Good subjective health at age 75 (that is, physically active at age 75)
Good subjective and objective physical and mental health at age 80
Mastery of the Eriksonian task of Generativity
Availability of social supports other than wife and kids between ages 60 and 75
In a good marriage between ages 60 and 85
Close to children between ages 60 and 75

Essentially Vaillant took ten individual late life outcomes that 1) could be measured somewhat objectively and 2) when combined, could become a much better example of a flourishing life than a less-successful cohort.

But why would we want to measure these inputs and outcomes in the first place? This is where it gets exciting!

With a longitudinal study it is possible to look back over the lives of the participants to see what factors had a significant relationship to a high decathlon of flourishing score!

Vaillant tested seventeen factors measuring the participants’ physical traits, parents’ education, relationships, social class, etc. to see which variables correlated with higher flourishing scores. Of the seventeen tested, only five had a significant effect on a high “life-flourishing” score:

  • Warm Childhood
  • Overall college soundness
  • Empathic coping (defense) style from ages 20–35
  • Warm adult relationships from ages 30–45
  • Athletic Prowess (very significant but only to a couple decathlon outcomes)

These five scored p-values of >.001, meaning for these factors, Vaillant found there was a 99.9 percent chance that a relationship existed between these areas and higher life-flourishing scores in his results.

Of note, all four of the variables that measured relationships had a very significant correlation with a high “life-flourishing” score, and relationship variables accounted for 4 of the 5 factors that related to life success.

All of this makes for a very interesting approach as we think about what it takes to live a long successful life. How important is it to our success to look at those who have performed well in the “life-flourishing” decathlon and the factors that are highly correlated with their success?

Do we want our children to have long flourishing lives? Per the Vaillant study, those children who experienced that outcome tended to have warm childhoods.

Do you want to live a long successful life? Again, per the Vaillant study, having warm early adult relationships was a common denominator for those who experienced long, successful lives.

Longitudinal studies like Vaillant’s above have great insights but should to be combined with other types of research and schools of thought to give additional context. Over the coming weeks and months I’ll do just that as we dig into these areas and others that have a significant correlation with long fulfilled lives!

I’ll post the series here. Get the series e-mailed to you here.


Other study notes the sample and correlations:

Sample: Like any study there are holes that can be poked. In this case the cross section of participants is fairly narrow — male Harvard students isn’t a representative sample. That stated, Vaillant does a good job explaining how the results are still significant and relevant.

Correlation vs Causation:
Correlation isn’t the same thing as causation. We can’t say that “early childhood warm relationships” caused a long successful lives. All we can say is that there is a statistically significant relationship between this variable and the outcome.

To better articulate the difference take this example. There are more homicides when ice cream sales are high. Murders are highly correlated to ice cream sales. That stated higher ice cream sales don’t actually cause more murders. As it turns out, more murders and ice cream sales are caused by warmer weather. Google “ice cream correlation with murders” if you’d like more of an explanation.

Originally published at BradleyPope.com.

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