Northwest skies are gray and our backyard plum and maple trees have already begun to let go of their leaves. No matter how warm the days, nights are cool. Projects I began in the spring, then ignored while the sun shone, are appealing again. Suddenly I’m in the mood to stay indoors, to read. Books from amazon.com and the library pile up in each room.
Since it’s obvious that the season is changing and because I just turned a year older, the first book I chose to read had to do with the seasons of our lives. It’s called “Triumphs of Experience” by George E Vaillant and tells the story of the 75-year-long Harvard study of adult development. The goal of the study was to determine what kind of family life, personal qualities, experiences, and behaviors would lead to a longer life and good physical and mental health in old age.
The author describes five stages of adult development* the last two of which he calls Guardianship and Integrity. I’m focusing on these two because for me the earlier stages are history. Guardianship, he says is “the capacity to care.” One of the study’s subjects tells a story that illustrates his entry into this stage. “‘I have finally come through to a realization of what is of critical importance to our future — that we finally come to live in harmony with nature and our natural environment, not in victory over it.'” Integrity is “the capacity to come to terms constructively with our pasts and our futures in the face of inevitable death.”
What have we learned from the Harvard research? I cherry-picked a few of the study’s conclusions. Although only white males were included, the conclusions seem reasonable for either sex.
1. We don’t stop growing and changing when we leave school. We develop throughout our adult lives, even into our nineties if we live that long.
2. Marriage becomes happier after 70.
3. Being a conscientious child was the most important predictor of well-being among those 65 to 85 years old.
4. “A happy old age requires both physical and mental health. For mental health, love is a necessity.”
5. “Physical aging after 80 is determined less by heredity than by habits formed prior to age 50.”
This quote from a letter by George Eliot gives voice to the season of the year and the season of life:
“Is not this a true autumn day? Just the still melancholy that I love – that makes life and nature harmonise.” In other words, a good day to curl up with a book.
*based on the work of Erik Erikson