Germans drink a lot of smoke

"The more you drink, the more you smoke"

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ZEIT knowledge:Why are the people in your "success group" better than the rest at dealing with difficult situations?

Vaillant: The study showed that those I call "mature adapters" are more likely to be successful: They react with altruism, for example, and try to learn from the situation for the future. They channel their strong feelings or emerging aggressions in such a way that they do no internal damage, for example with sports.

ZEIT knowledge: And what about the known risk factors like smoking, alcohol and lack of exercise - how important are they?

The Grant Study

The Grant Study

Since 1937, researchers at Harvard University have followed the development of 268 Harvard graduates born between 1939 and 1944, across war and peace, careers and illness, weddings and divorces - to this day. All participants are male, due to the low quota of women at the time, four of them sat in the US Senate, one was President John F. Kennedy. A successful writer is also among the participants.

Vaillant: Alcohol apparently plays a much more dominant role than has long been assumed. It is the cause of much that has not yet been so clearly attributed to it. In the study, we not only limited ourselves to the amount of alcohol consumption, but also examined the problems caused by alcohol. For example, smoking is often only a consequence of alcohol consumption: the more you drink, the more you smoke, according to the sequence in the chain. Of course, lung cancer is a direct result of smoking ...

ZEIT knowledge: ... but basically alcohol is at the beginning of the descent?

Vaillant: Yes, and that makes him dangerous. Education and awareness appear most likely to limit its influence. Depending on what role they play in current life, this has a direct impact on alcohol consumption. For example, the daily time spent on education first decreases, then alcohol consumption increases.

ZEIT knowledge: The participants in your study all come from the Harvard graduate classes from 1939 to 1944, so a lack of education is unlikely to have been a problem.

Vaillant: Not then, no. But Harvard was 50 years ago now. Today we see very clear differences between the participants.

ZEIT knowledge: However, the influence of the Harvard period remains. In addition, only men take part in the study. Is it even allowed to draw generally valid conclusions from the course of their lives?

Vaillant: They are all individuals, despite their obvious similarities. It is of course true that we observe a particularly favored collective overall, also with regard to life expectancy. Those who are still alive are around 90 years old, and the figure is still 30 percent - more than three times the average of the population at that age. But Harvard's influence is put into perspective to a large extent over the course of life. The same applies to childhood, by the way.

ZEIT knowledge: They claim that an unhappy and dreary childhood has little influence on the future.

Vaillant: Yes, this result of the study is particularly surprising. Many of the participants with mental health problems recovered over the years, the traces of childhood soon disappeared, and there was no longer any statistical influence on satisfaction, health and longevity.

ZEIT knowledge: Did the participants get happier with age?

Vaillant: Happiness doesn't necessarily have to do with a happy life, it's not that important. "Being happy" is just a state of mind. Imagine Britney Spears at a Saturday night party: dancing, drinking, flirting, happy and carefree for a few hours. The problem is: what about Sunday morning? Is she still happy there? And besides: happiness often reduces the inner drive.