The Scientific Recipe for Greatness

Scientific RecipeThe traits of successful people is a subject that has intrigued us since at least the 1930s. That was the era when Dale Carnegie founded self-improvement industry (which now worth $11 Billion per year in the US alone); it was also in the late 1930s that a group of social scientists quietly began the ambitious Grant study exploring the lives of 268 Harvard-educated men.

Sixty years later (the study still going strong) they have basically given up hope of discovering the secret recipe of greatness which they were after. (They also didn’t achieve their other lofty aim of easing “the disharmony of the world at large.”) However, they have at least identified seven primary factors that predict healthy (physical and psychological) living and aging. They are: getting an education; having a stable marriage; not smoking; employing “mature adaptations;” not abusing alcohol;  having some exercise and maintaining a healthy weight.

All of these strike me as surprisingly simple, straight-forward and actionable recommendations –all but the one. Challenging is the concept of “adaptations,” which the study has explored. Adaptations are the defence mechanisms that people use to respond psychologically to challenges in life:

Vaillant explains defenses as the mental equivalent of a basic biological process. When we cut ourselves, for example, our blood clots—a swift and involuntary response that maintains homeostasis. Similarly, when we encounter a challenge large or small—a mother’s death or a broken shoelace—our defenses float us through the emotional swamp. And just as clotting can save us from bleeding to death—or plug a coronary artery and lead to a heart attack—defenses can spell our redemption or ruin. […]

The healthiest, or “mature,” adaptations include altruism, humor, anticipation (looking ahead and planning for future discomfort), suppression (a conscious decision to postpone attention to an impulse or conflict, to be addressed in good time), and sublimation (finding outlets for feelings, like putting aggression into sport, or lust into courtship). (The Atlantic article is available here.)

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7 Responses to The Scientific Recipe for Greatness

  1. Tim Woods says:

    That's an interesting perspective, looking at social actions from a Darwinian perspective. It reminds me a bit of the book The Gift http://www.amazon.co.uk/Gift-Creative-Spirit-Tr… You wouldn't guess it from the cover (or title of the book), but it's actually a fascinating philosophica/literary/historical look at what glue's societies together (basically gift-giving). Maybe I'll write a post on it. It really made me think about everything differently. Also Margaret Atwood liked it so much that after writing a glowing recommendation of the book she couldn't help but go on to write her own book (I believe her first popular non-fiction book ever) about the very same subject.

    I'll see if I can track down that Seed article you mentioned. Thanks. –You do sound paranoid though 😉

  2. Tim Woods says:

    Thanks Foster. Apparently the group of Harvard grads they followed included John F. Kennedy, so I'm sure you're right.

    I love the idealism/optimism these researchers had when they started their research. They were Harvard grads themselves and must have basically thought, “we Harvard people are great; we should study ourselves and tell the world how to live.” 🙂

  3. timwoods says:

    That's an interesting perspective, looking at social actions from a Darwinian perspective. It reminds me a bit of the book The Gift http://www.amazon.co.uk/Gift-Creative-Spirit-Tr… You wouldn't guess it from the cover (or title of the book), but it's actually a fascinating philosophica/literary/historical look at what glue's societies together (basically gift-giving). Maybe I'll write a post on it. It really made me think about everything differently. Also Margaret Atwood liked it so much that after writing a glowing recommendation of the book she couldn't help but go on to write her own book (I believe her first popular non-fiction book ever) about the very same subject.

    I'll see if I can track down that Seed article you mentioned. Thanks. –You do sound paranoid though 😉

  4. I was fortunate enough to have Dr. Chris DiCarlo as a philosophy professor in university. He is a proponent of the evolutionary and biological drivers behind reciprocal altruism, or more easily “the golden rule”. Having not read the Atlantic article fully I can't comment on its entirety, however the aspect mentioned here regarding “mature adaptations” brought back a flood of thoughts in parallel with DiCarlo's lectures.

    I find it's important to remember that altruism is selfish behaviour, though it is constructive in intent and generally used with an eye to the long game. To the point, he repeatedly pointed (in my mind anyway) to the society building and stabilizing affects of altruistic behaviours. For example, if I drive an elderly person home from the grocery store in the winter, I use my own gas and time. However, I stand to gain the 'warm-fuzzies', a sense of accomplishment, perhaps the approval of my spouse and peers, perhaps prevent the senior from falling and breaking a hip which puts an unnecessary demand on our healthcare system, etc etc… So selfishly, I've done a number of good things for myself, however, in the process I'm managed to accomplish a number of things that benefit the society as a whole.

    Perhaps more succinctly, if I kill a deer, I can eat it all myself, which would benefit my fitness the most immediately or I could share the meat with my tribe (society) which adds to their odds of survival (fitness) and also create or sustains a cultural system where we help each other and perhaps next week someone else will share with me.

    Ok, finally to the point. Isn't it interesting that these altruistic traits/behaviours that make us the happiest and healthiest also directly contribute to a better society. Good old Darwinian selection on a complex organism.

    DiCarlo's recent work, I believe he won an award for this:
    http://www.relationsofnaturalsystems.com/

    As a bit of a tangent, there was an outstanding article published in the early issues of Seed magazine (had to be issue 8 or 9, while it was still very independent and Canadian owned) that explored where the aims of the benefactor following Grant were directed (good or bad) and the world shaking results that could be said to have arisen from those rather deep pockets. I realize that this sounds paranoid and cryptic, but those pockets continue to have impact and I'm not stupid.

    • timwoods says:

      That's an interesting perspective, looking at social actions from a Darwinian perspective. It reminds me a bit of the book The Gift http://www.amazon.co.uk/Gift-Creative-Spirit-Tr… You wouldn't guess it from the cover (or title of the book), but it's actually a fascinating philosophica/literary/historical look at what glue's societies together (basically gift-giving). Maybe I'll write a post on it. It really made me think about everything differently. Also Margaret Atwood liked it so much that after writing a glowing recommendation of the book she couldn't help but go on to write her own book (I believe her first popular non-fiction book ever) about the very same subject.

      I'll see if I can track down that Seed article you mentioned. Thanks. –You do sound paranoid though 😉

  5. Foster says:

    Interesting article Tim! My response to it, is that it's interesting the study was done on Harvard grads. It would seem to me that that control group may be a group that has some slight advantages in life to start off with. In order to get into Harvard, let alone graduation you either need money & and good connections – or be brilliant and motived enough to get grants etc.

    On a personal side note – I've actually be told that I'm too altruistic – which was interesting for me to hear lol.

    Anyway hope all is well with you Tim! I'm diggin your blog!

    • timwoods says:

      Thanks Foster. Apparently the group of Harvard grads they followed included John F. Kennedy, so I'm sure you're right.

      I love the idealism/optimism these researchers had when they started their research. They were Harvard grads themselves and must have basically thought, “we Harvard people are great; we should study ourselves and tell the world how to live.” 🙂

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