The Most Successful Man from a 50+ Year Harvard Study

During this past Thanksgiving holiday, I read the book, “Triumphs of Experience” by George Vailliant. This book summarizes findings from the most comprehensive study of success and happiness ever performed. The study is known as the “Harvard Study of Adult Development.” This study analyzed 268 Harvard sophomores and 456 inner-city Boston school boys for over half a century.

This study IS simply fascinating. This book is my most highlighted book of all time.

In a nutshell, the rotating group of researchers studied these men throughout their adult lives ranking them on their success, health, happiness, and relationships. What they learned is both heartbreaking and life changing. You’ll have to read the book to see why.

One of the most successful and happy people profiled in the book was Charles Boatwright (not his real name). Mr. Boatwright had scored higher than any other man on the measure of wisdom. Late in his life, he was scoring higher on every measure they analyzed. This was odd to the head of the research because Boatwright hadn’t scored well in his younger years. He didn’t seem to have any significant career, he had gone through a divorce, and was estranged from his children. How had this man become the highest scoring individual out of all of the men studied?

When Boatwright was 79, a research internist visited with him as part of the study and asked him about his mood, “he gushed Optimistic, Optimistic, Pollyana, Pollyana.

After this particular visit, the internist wrote:

In fact, my experience with Boatwright was delightful…interesting and interested, gracious, charming, and engaged. I was impressed with his voracious hunger for learning, which obviously keeps him vital. He is, I think, remarkably effective in actually getting what he wants. After fifteen years of gradually progressive discontent in the staid corporate world, he had leaped into debt and boldly returned to the rhythm of life he felt most suited to. Without really consolidating a career, he seems to be in a state of unequivocal Generativity.”

In a nutshell, Boatwright turned out to be the most hopeful and optimistic person they studied. This optimism permeated every area of his life and grew as he aged… despite the typical life struggles we all face. “For Charles Boatwright, lemons were mostly the sine qua non of lemonade. Gratitude came naturally to him. He found meaning and success in whatever he undertook.”

Reading about Mr. Boatwright forced me to evaluate my optimism and what I realized was that I haven’t been very optimistic for many years. Slowly over time I’ve become pessimistic. I seem to always be mentally scanning 24/7 for problems. Once I identify a problem, I tend to dwell on this particular problem. This isn’t the best way to live,  so I decided to become more optimistic. I wanted to model Charles Boatwright so I could gush similar optimism. As part of this process, I began a new 10-minute morning exercise learned from Martin Seligman, who is known as the founder of Positive Psychology:

List 3 things that went right from the day before. Next to each item that went right, indicate “why” it went right.

I started this daily exercise 10 weeks ago and have been pretty consistent each morning in making my list. The change I’ve experienced has been incredible.

At first, I had trouble listing things that were going right. This was actually crazy because so many things go right for us on a daily basis and we don’t even notice them. I would sit with my notepad for 5 or 10 minutes before being able to list anything. Then something clicked and I started seeing dozens of things that were going right. Today I can usually list 10 or more things each and every morning very quickly. Here are a few actual examples from my notebook from just this morning:

1. The eviction hearing I had yesterday went well and the eviction was granted.
Why: I followed the necessary steps to insure the eviction would be successful.

2. The evicted tenant actually had moved out giving me possession of the property at the eviction hearing. This saved 10 days and will allow me to have the home rented by February 1st.
Why: I had explained the timeline of the eviction process to the tenant a few weeks ago. They were prepared and moved out before the sheriff moved them out.

3. My workout went very well and I moved up in weight for several lifts. I’m getting stronger.
Why: Tracking my workouts helps keep me focused and forces me to challenge myself every time I walk in the gym.

4. Our weather turned ugly and I didn’t receive any frozen water line or no heat phone calls.
Why: A prior change I made to my agreements is starting to payoff by reducing phone calls as tenants have to handle certain issues on their own.

5. Alabama won the college football championship. (After Ohio State, Alabama is one of my favorite college football teams)
Why: Nick Saban is one of the best coaches in the world.

Notice several of the items listed were things we would typically take for granted. Well, this daily exercise helps us to start appreciating little things that are going right in our lives. What is really amazing is that within a short period of time, I found myself mentally scanning for things that were going right throughout the day so I would be prepared for the next morning’s list. This was significantly different than my usual way of  scanning for problems throughout the day. I was starting to look for good things instead of bad things.

Another benefit of this process is that it directs your thinking away from negative thoughts and moves you back positive thoughts. Yesterday wasn’t a perfect day and I actually had a pretty significant challenge. I didn’t think very much about this challenge and instead shifted back to things that were going right.

The old mental exercise I seemed to be following was:

What went wrong yesterday and why?  How can I dwell on these problems?

This old exercise was very powerful and sucked optimism out of my life. This new exercise is the exact opposite bringing a completely new outlook.

Why am I sharing all of this?

Because those of us in real estate and those who own their own businesses deal with challenges and problems on a daily basis. These challenges can and will bring us down over time. We need to be proactive in directing our thoughts.

NOTE: I had never heard of Pollyanna before reading about Charles Boatwright. I had no clue there is a book and several movies on Pollyanna. I’ve since read the book and love the “Glad Game.” I actually think this book from the early 1900s is the secret to Charles Boatwright’s success.

3 Comments

  • Danny Owen

    Reply Reply March 2, 2016

    I am a bit disturbed that Mr. Boatwright was estranged from his family and still scores high on the “wisdom” scale. My first impression is he sounds like an asshole to me. Don’t know the circumstances so I can’t really judge. Wondering exactly what the researchers were measuring. The book sounds interesting, so I’ll probably buy it.

    • Robert Minton

      Reply Reply March 2, 2016

      I think the opportunity to learn from Mr. Boatwright is more about how he chooses to “see” everything in his life. If I remember correctly, his family is estranged because his wife had a serious alcohol addiction and he stayed with her for many years. This situation obviously caused problems with his children. He actually turned this situation into a positive and was extremely faithful to her. I would still recommend the book and you can evaluate for yourself.

  • KC Covington

    Reply Reply January 19, 2016

    Great story. I too have been drawn into the negative path. It is easy to find the negative and takes a little more effort to go after the positive. I think this would help me too.

    Thanks,
    KC

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