In a NYT op-ed called The Heat Grows Smarter, David Brooks addresses some of the deepest questions a man can ponder: What makes a man successful? What makes a man happy?
The answers are not altogether shocking, and yet the academic confirmation of these factors is somewhat unexpected. David Brooks explains:
It wasn’t only parents who were emotionally diffident; it was the people who studied them. In 1938, a group of researchers began an intensive study of 268 students at Harvard University. The plan was to track them through their entire lives, measuring, testing and interviewing them every few years to see how lives develop.
In the 1930s and 1940s, the researchers didn’t pay much attention to the men’s relationships. Instead, following the intellectual fashions of the day, they paid a lot of attention to the men’s physiognomy. Did they have a “masculine” body type? Did they show signs of vigorous genetic endowments?
What they determined, of course, was that physiognomy and body type had nothing to do with what gave men good lives. When examining which men rose high in the military during WWII wasn’t a burly physique. The major determining factor to a man’s success was whether or not he grew up in a warm and loving family. Brooks explains that the men who grew up in cold households were much more likely to finish as privates.
Body type was useless as a predictor of how the men would fare in life. So was birth order or political affiliation. Even social class had a limited effect. But having a warm childhood was powerful. As George Vaillant, the study director, sums it up in “Triumphs of Experience,” his most recent summary of the research, “It was the capacity for intimate relationships that predicted flourishing in all aspects of these men’s lives.”
Those intimate relationships also seem to contribute to study participants living longer.
Even better, a man’s childhood doesn’t lock him into an outcome. First, a perfectly happy childhood doesn’t seem to be a pre-requisite for success, but rather the presence of a loving person in the man’s childhood. Even more reassuringly to parents, Brooks says, “as Vaillant puts it, ‘What goes right is more important than what goes wrong.'”
And regardless of whether he was raised in a cold household, his life could improve as he aged. Brooks cites men who, as they aged (the study spans 90 years of life), made efforts to develop intimate relationships and find the things that make them happy. It’s also important to note that some of the happiness men found as they aged may be what Brooks describes as historical, “Over the past half-century or so, American culture has become more attuned to the power of relationships. Masculinity has changed, at least a bit.”
One also has to wonder if perhaps Charlie Glickman may have been on to something in his personal essay about low testosterone levels and his experience in supplementing his body with more of the so-called male hormone. Glickman explains:
Without making excuses for anyone’s behavior in any way, it does seem to me that the ways that some people talk about how men manage ourselves rarely takes the physiological effects of testosterone into account.
Considering that men’s testosterone levels tend to lower as they age, is it possible that lowered testosterone levels may have also opened up new avenues of happiness for these older men? Glickman isn’t quick to jump on a bandwagon blaming testosterone for male behavior either way, and recognizes that part of what makes men better able to make good choices as they age is experience and naturally-obtained wisdom.
What do you think of this new information? Do you believe that your childhood—warm and intimate or cold and lonely—contributed to your overall professional and personal success?
In what ways does this information become helpful to parents raising boys?
Also read Hitting Puberty at 42: Testosterone and Me by Charlie Glickman
Painting by Sarah G…/Flickr