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The Scientific Recipe for Greatness

The traits of successful people have fascinated 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:

  1. getting an education;
  2. having a stable marriage;
  3. not smoking;
  4. employing "mature adaptations;" (see below)
  5. not abusing alcohol; 
  6. having some exercise and
  7. 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.)