DEFENSES–GROWING STRONGER WITH AGE. Back in the sixties, I had heard about the long-term study of mentally healthy students from my friend Bob Clipner. Bob said that one of the findings at that point was that, on the whole, the men, then in their forties, had learned to deal with their weaknesses; they had grown stronger in the areas where they had had psychological weaknesses in their twenties. The conclusion still holds for later life. George Vaillant, who has been the head of the Harvard study for most of its 72 years, attaches great importance to defenses against the misfortunes of life. Shenk’s article says: “The men’s relationships at age 47, [Vaillant] found, predicted late-life adjustment better than any other variable, except defenses.” (Put another way, defenses were the most important variable, even more important than personal relationships.) Vaillant thinks that what is important is the kind of defenses that are deployed. What he calls “immature” adaptations such as acting out or passive aggression are not as effective as “mature” adaptations such as humor, altruism or sublimation. With age, we learn to use the more effective “mature” defenses. “As adolescents, the Grant Study men were twice as likely to use immature defenses as mature ones, but in middle life they were four times as likely to use mature defenses—and the progress continued into old age.”

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