In “The Heart Grows Smarter,” David Brooks discussed the importance of caring relationships, and cited the classic work of George Vaillant who followed a cohort of Harvard men for many years. As Brooks notes, “It’s not that the men who flourished had perfect childhoods. Rather, as Vaillant puts it, “What goes right is more important than what goes wrong.” The positive effect of one loving relative, mentor or friend can overwhelm the negative effects of the bad things that happen” Another important study, paralleling this work is the wonderful book, The Seasons of a Man’s Life, where Daniel Levinson discusses delves into the important role of mentors during the transition to adulthood.
Developmental psychologists have provided a very strong foundation for understanding the role of mentors in the lives of youth. Attachment researchers had identified the vital importance of caring connections, in infancy and beyond. John Bolby (1979, p. 103) wrote that humans seem “happiest and able to deploy their talents to best advantage when they are confident that, standing behind them, there are one or more trusted persons who will come to their aid should difficulties arise,” And, although not the focus of their work, resilience scholars have made important observations about the role of caring adults in the lives of youth. Norman Garmezy (1985), for example, had observed that resilient children often had at least one significant adult. He reviewed the literature on children in war, looking at how boys and girls in Europe and Israel adapted. His studies pointed to non-family adults as prime factors in how children respond. Likewise, Michael Rutter (1979, p. 52) observed that vulnerable children with “one good relationship” were less prone to delinquency than others. The most ambitious of the “beating the odds” studies was Emmy Werner and Ruth Smith’s (1982) 30-year survey of 500 children on the small Hawaiian Island of Kauai. Born into poverty, most were the children of sugar plantation workers in the rapidly declining sugar cane industry. Many grew up in fear of even greater poverty, struggling through parental substance abuse. Children who became self-sufficient adults had had at least one adult – in addition to their parents – who provided guidance and support.
We may wrangle about politics, as well we should. At the same time, it’s important to remember that the magic formula for happiness and well-being is our capacity to forge meaningful relationships.