Dr. George E. Vaillant is Harvard Medical School's Director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, the longest investigation of aging in the world. This study has tracked three cohorts of men and women 864 individuals for 6 to 8 decades. The data gleaned from this landmark project lays out some of the lineaments of successful aging. Dr. Vaillant, author of Adaptation to Life, quotes Henri Amiel at the start of this book: "To know how to grow old is the master-work of wisdom, and one of the most difficult chapters in the great art of living."
Using the case histories of long-lived individuals, the author lifts out the surprising reasons why some people turn out to be more resilient and happy than others. One of the most important is that "what goes right in childhood predicts the future far better than what goes wrong." A sense of trust and the ability to accept one's emotional life are important factors in positive aging. Another is generativity putting into the world more than was there before. Vaillant also discovered that a good marriage at 50 predicted positive aging at 80. One of the findings that goes against our traditional image of the elderly is that a majority of these individuals suffer little incapacitating illness until the final one that kills them. And when they are ill, how they handle it depends most not upon treatments but on mental attitude.
Vaillant outlines the four basic activities that make retirement rewarding and the four personal qualities that enrich the later years of life. All of this material is enlightening, especially for members of the Baby Boom generation who are very concerned about the paths to successful aging.