The Points Interview: George Vaillant

Editor’s Note: George Vaillant’s recent book, Triumphs of Experience: The Men of the Harvard Grant Study (Harvard University Press, 2012), reflects on the famous longitudinal study begun in 1938. Here, he explains why some findings may be of interest to alcohol and drug historians.

  screenshot_1045 1. Describe your book in terms your bartender could understand.

It’s a poor man’s Passages [by Gail Sheehy]—only it’s from real life.

2. What do you think a bunch of alcohol and drug historians might find particularly interesting about your book?

The value of the Grant study to the history of alcoholism is the number of urban myths that it exposes, and for this reason it received the biennial Jellinek prize for the best research in alcoholism in the world.

The first urban myth exposed is that depression causes alcoholism. Our prospective study shows beyond a doubt that alcoholism causes depression.

Second, alcoholics have unhappy childhoods due to their parents’ alcoholism; unhappy childhoods without a history of alcoholism do not lead to alcoholism. Therefore, the relationship between childhood and alcoholism appears to be genetic.

The third urban myth exposed is that AA is only for a few alcoholics and drugs are more useful. There are no two-year or longer studies of Naltrexone, Antabuse, or Acamprosate that have been shown to be effective, nor has long-term follow-up of cognitive behavioral therapy proved to be effective. On the other hand, when we followed, over 60 years, our sample of roughly 150 alcoholics, the men who made complete recovery—that’s an average of 19 years of abstinence—as contrasted to those men who remained chronically alcoholic until they died, the men who “recovered” went to 30 times more AA meetings than the men who remained chronically ill. Like outgrowing adolescence, it takes a long time to learn to put up with AA, but when you do, it works.

3. Now that the hard part is over, what is the thing YOU find most interesting about your book? screenshot_1047

Two things are interesting about my book. First is that happiness is love, full stop—which has been often quoted and picked up. And the second is that it’s not the bad things in life that damage us, as much as it’s the good things in life that sustain us and allow us to develop us and grow.

4. Every research project leaves some stones unturned. What stone are you most curious to see turned over soon?

This should be written in capital letters with three exclamation points: WE DIDN’T STUDY WOMEN!!!

BONUS QUESTION: In an audio version of this book, who should provide the narration?

The short answer is, I don’t know. The smart answer is Lawrence Olivier. The less appropriate answer is that if someone paid me to do it, I’d be thrilled.

 

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