I am reading a fascinating book called Triumphs of Experience. It is from Harvard University and reports on a 75 year follow-up of 268 young men recruited in the 1930s. This is one of very few whole-of-life studies in medical literature.
The subjects were undergraduates at Harvard University and they were thought at the time to be healthy and “likely to succeed”.
There were a number of study aims including identifying “superior” young men, identifying those who would make good business managers and, in the world of the 1930s, as the second World War approached, those who could be predicted to be successful officers in the Armed Forces.
The staff of the study team interviewed the young men, their parents, siblings and teachers. They were extensively interviewed and repeatedly sat a battery of physical and psychological tests over the next 75 years. Subjects were studied in intense detail under a number of project leaders and team members as the decades passed by.
In reading the book, one of the fascinating things is how psychological fashions have changed since the 1930s. Over the years there have been philosophies which have risen, become fashionable, become dogma and finally failed. I will discuss this more in the next blog.
As these men entered their 90s, the study director developed a 10-point scale measuring ‘life success’. The score, which contained 10 elements, was called a decathlon. Success was measured in 10 ways and included a successful marriage, successful relationships with children and an active friendship group, the continuance of physical activity and ongoing good health. It also included income and professional careers but these were not scored more highly than any others. On balance these 10 elements seem to make a very sensible summary of ‘success in life’.
At the beginning of the study it was felt that race and physical attributes would predict life success. There was also an expectation that parental social status and income would be relevant. As the study continued and it became easier to analyse ‘whole of life experience’ it became clear that the expectations of the original study team could not be validated. Success in life did not relate to physical prowess, body shape, parental income or parental social status. There was only one variable which was highly associated with life success; in fact there were two, but as you will find below, they are clearly interconnected.
I suspect that the majority of my readers will be mothers with young children. Before you read the next paragraph you might like to reflect for a moment on “what do you think leads to success in life” or perhaps a related question; “How might we or you as parents predict or help a child have a successful life?”
While reading this book I have asked the above question of a number of friends, family, colleagues and even active psychologists. The closest answer came from a medical colleague who answered “family”. In fact, it is a little more specific than family. Success in life is highly correlated with a stable family which shares love and affection or to put it more simply, a loving family. Independent of all other variables if a young person comes from a family which is loving, that person is likely to have a more successful life as measured by a range of indicators of success. A person can come from quite significant economic disadvantage but having been loved and being shown how to trust, accept and share love still predicts success in life more than any other variable. A loving family leads to better life expectancy, better health, higher social achievement, higher income and higher rank for those admitted to the military.
So why am I writing about this book on a website focused on mothers, young families, babies and children and their sleep performance?
Families who seek my help may be traumatised by poor sleep and the tiredness and exhaustion which follows. It is common for mothers at their first visit to be lacking confidence in their skills, are not able to enjoy motherhood and feel significant levels of frustration with their child.
When sleep is improved a mother’s confidence, pleasure and frustration scores move strongly in a positive direction. In a study which we published in the BMJ Open Journal we showed dramatic decreases in scores for depression, anxiety and stress within two weeks of an initial consultation. It is simply beyond doubt that if a mother has a predictable bedtime for her children, an evening with her husband or partner and some time for herself followed by a full night’s sleep, the quality of care which she gives to her child and children, increases dramatically. In my clinic, it is obvious that her connection to her child improves. I will commonly suggest to these mothers that when things are going well their love for their child is complete and effortless. They readily agree.
In reading this book I see the possibility that teaching good quality sleep skills and providing parents a life balance which works for every member of the family is allowing them to all flourish. And the benefits are not just short-term.
This book, Triumphs of Experience, suggests that an early experience of appropriate love has benefits which will survive in some form for years and decades to follow.
My final comment is to return to the hint given above about a second factor which predicted life success for men. Some men in the study came from homes which were not truly nurturing but they still succeeded. The most common predictor of success in this group was being happily married.
It is my experience and it is my observation over some six decades, and now the observation of this study over more than 75 years, that the genuine love of a mother or wife has a positive and permanent impact upon everyone who receives it.
Dr Brian Symon
The Babysleep Doctor