Does Childhood Adversity Give You an Advantage in Adulthood?



I recently finished reading Supernormal: The Untold Story of Adversity and Resilience by Meg Jay, PhD.

This book was brought to my attention by member @kevin after we had several email conversations after I wrote Nurturing the Intelligent Fanatic in our Children.

Since then Kevin wrote this great article on the book, Some Thoughts on “Cradles of Eminence: Childhoods of More Than 700 Famous Men and Women”.

In Supernormal, Meg Jay tells the stories of several individuals that came from challenged upbringings and how their resilience early in life helped them lead “supernormal” lives. “Supernormal” doesn’t necessarily mean high status or great wealth, it may just mean they lived fulfilled lives in spite of their hardships as children.

The type of hardships described in the book would include the following:

  • Did you lose a parent or sibling through death or divorce?
  • Did a parent or sibling often swear at you, put you down, humiliate you, isolate you, or in any way make you feel afraid?
  • Did you live with a parent or sibling who was an alcoholic or abused drugs?
  • Were you bullied at school?
  • Did you live with a parent or sibling that had a mental illness, or some other illness that had a special need?
  • Were you physically or sexually abused by a parent, sibling, or family member?
  • Did you live in a home where you went without clean clothes or enough to eat, you could not afford a doctor, or you felt you had no one to protect you?
  • Did someone in your household go to jail?

Studies have shown that 75% of children and teens are exposed to at least one of the events above. I’m sure many of you that are reading this fit into one of the bullet points. The issue lies in that a much smaller sub-segment of children and teens are exposed to multiple things on the list above and they occur over several years.

Many of the stories Meg Jay tells are heart wrenching. You can’t help but be amazed at how well their lives turned out. They are indeed “supernormal”. Most of these stories are of people you’ve never heard of, but she also provides anecdotes of some famous people. I shared a story about Howard Shultz in our members forum [HERE]. Meg Jay also provides evidence from dozens of studies done over the last sixty years to come to some interesting conclusions.

Does Childhood Adversity Give You an Advantage in Adulthood? Are supernormals better able to tackle adversity, challenges, goals in adulthood because they are….used to it.

The following is an abbreviated excerpt from the book:

In 1938, Harvard physician and researcher Arlen Bock began what would become the longest-running study of well-being in history. It was financed by William T. Grant, the Sam Walton of his day, and so this study was called the “Grant Study”.

The Grant Study was performed on 268 Harvard Students, carefully chosen because they were deemed to be intellectually, physically, and emotionally sound. Born toward the end of the World War I, this was a group that grew up during the Roaring Twenties and were teenagers during the Great Depression. President John F. Kennedy was revealed to be a Grant man. The Grant study would later be deemed as Harvard’s most important contribution to society.

Both Grant and Bock were aiming to discover the secrets of what they called “superachievers”. The Grant Study planned to go very deep into the backgrounds and even the health of each participant. The Grant men sat for anthropological and intelligence testing. They ran on a treadmill in the Fatigue Lab. They took the Rorschach inkblot test and had their handwriting analyzed. They underwent the newfangled EEG. Their dietary habits were recorded, too, down to how much sugar they put in their morning coffee. Medical exams were so extensive, researchers made note of every physical attribute from brow ridges to “the length of the scrotum”. Caseworkers made home visits to gather childhood and family histories.

The Grant men were tracked their entire lives, and no conclusions could really be made until the group was well into their 90’s.

Bock and Grant had conceived of the Grant Study in the hope of uncovering the secrets of “superachievers”, but of course research and lives are rarely so simple. Not one of the Grant men enjoyed a charmed life – everyone struggled in some form or another – not one of those innate characteristics the researchers had been so keen to record predicted what came their way. Beyond a certain point – just a standard deviation above average, in fact – higher intelligence did not lead to more success; the men with IQs in the 110-115 range did as well at work as those with IQs above 150. It was alcoholism – not brow ridges or teaspoons of sugar – that broke up more families than anything else. And by age fifty, almost a third of the men had met the criteria for a mental disorder such as depression or anxiety at one time or another, a finding that baffled the study’s founder: “They were normal when I picked them,” Bock said in the 1960’s.

Psychology researcher George Vaillant would become the longest serving director of the Grant study and he would weave together decades of data on the Grant men. There is no telling what Bock’s reaction would have been had he lived to hear about the most radical finding of all, revealed when the Grant men were in their nineties, when researchers had the benefit of their whole lives to work with. Vaillant declared that, by far, the most important influence on whether the Grant men’s lives had turned out well was one the study’s founders had really never considered at all: Love.

Those who had had love in their lives flourished at home and at work while those who went without had not done so well. Sometimes the love that made the difference took the form of a good childhood; The men with the warmest childhoods, those in which they had felt loved and cared for by someone important, made 50% more money than those with the bleakest upbringings; they were more likely to feel satisfied with their lives in adulthood and have other loving relationships.

Vaillant was clear that love can take many forms. It can come from romantic partners, friends, teachers, grandparents, aunts, uncles, mentors, nurses, siblings etc.

Vaillant would say, “The seventy-five years and twenty million dollars expended on the Grant Study points, at least to me, to a straightforward five-word conclusion: Happiness is love. Full stop.”

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Some Thoughts on "Cradles of Eminence: Childhoods of More Than 700 Famous Men and Women"
What are your favorite non-fiction books?