Alfred Paine began life in wealth and privilege. His family wasn't warm or close, but his parents endowed him with a trust fund at birth and later, an Ivy League education. When he died, though, he counted no close friends. He left behind multiple unhappy marriages and adult children who rarely visited him. One daughter described him as having lived "an emotionally starved life."
Men rarely see Thomas J. Weida, MD, for medical tests without prodding from a wife or girlfriend. When they do show up, Weida jokes that he “can see the drag marks on the carpet.”
It’s amusing, of course. But it can quickly turn serious when a man ignores important symptoms. Weida says he knows of men who got away with ignoring chest pain for a couple of weeks. Eventually, though, they died of heart attacks.
Paine's schoolmate, Godfrey Camille, also came from an upper-class, troubled home. His parents were loners, nervous, and suspicious to a fault. "I neither liked nor respected my parents," he said. An acquaintance from his college days remembered him as "an intractable and unhappy hypochondriac." Needy and unloved, Camille coped unconsciously by running to the college infirmary for unfounded ailments. But he eventually bloomed into what one observer called a "happy, giving, and beloved man." His daughter praised him as a great father. When he turned 80, he threw himself a birthday potluck party and hired a jazz band -- and 300 people showed up.
Why did Camille grow into an emotionally healthy man, while Paine did not? Powerful clues emerge from a landmark study on men's development that has run for more than seven decades, making it the longest study of its kind in the world.
Characteristics of Emotionally Healthy Men
Paine and Camille, whose real names were disguised, were among more than 200 Harvard undergraduate men whom researchers studied for physical and mental health from late adolescence into very old age. The Grant Study of Adult Development began in 1938 and continues today, though the 62 Grant men who survive are now in their late 80s or 90s.
What can we learn from the lives of so many men studied over so many years? In his recent book, Triumphs of Experience: The Men of the Harvard Grant Study, George Vaillant, MD, a psychiatrist and professor at Harvard Medical School who became the study's director in 1966, extracts the insights gained from the study and translates them into life lessons. The following are some key insights Vaillant discovered about how men can live mentally healthy and emotionally rewarding lives.
1. Mentally healthy men use mature coping methods to deal with adversity.
In the struggle to manage life's challenges, Vaillant says, men may resort to immature coping methods: refusing to acknowledge one's problems, blaming others for personal failures, being passive-aggressive, displacing anger (kicking the dog instead of the boss), or routinely escaping into a fantasy world.
Immature coping methods have disturbing, telltale clues. "They make you feel wonderful, but they have no sticking power because they're narcissistic," Vaillant says. In other words, blaming others and blowing up in a rage may satisfy you, but no one else. "They can indeed make you happy in the short term, but they're very maladaptive because they drive people away."