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Portrait of an Emotionally Healthy Man

Characteristics of Emotionally Healthy Men continued...

Throughout his life, Paine failed to face serious problems, insisting that things were fine. "His greatest strength was that he did not complain; his greatest weakness was that he knew himself very little," according to Vaillant. "He could not acknowledge either his alcoholism or his depression." On questionnaires, Paine described close relationships with his children. But when Vaillant asked what he had learned from them, he snapped, "Nothing. I hardly ever see them."

Of all the men studied, Camille's childhood was one of the bleakest and least loving. Before age 30, his life was "essentially barren of relationship," according to Vaillant. But at 35, Camille's long history of hypochondria ended, oddly enough, when he was hospitalized for 14 months with pulmonary tuberculosis. For the first time, he felt transforming love and care. He went through a spiritual and professional awakening, according to Vaillant, and he no longer needed hypochondria to deal with life.

What happened next? "Once he grasped what had happened, he seized the ball and ran with it, straight into a developmental explosion that went on for 30 years," Vaillant says. Camille started a family, worked as a physician, and found emotional support through psychotherapy and church. Asked what he liked most about medicine, he replied, "I had problems and went to others, and now, I enjoy people coming to me."

Like Camille, the other mentally healthy men in the study showed an ability to take life's hardship and "turn it into gold," Vaillant says. He identified several mature coping skills, including humor, or not taking oneself too seriously; anticipation, the ability to foresee future pain and prepare for it; stoicism, the ability to endure hardships; and altruism, a concern for others.

2. Mentally healthy men avoid abusing alcohol. 

On the flip side, alcoholism -- which Vaillant believes may be partly genetic -- damaged the lives of several of the men in the Grant Study. The study found that abusing alcohol posed a major risk to well-being.

In tracking the Harvard men for a lifetime, researchers found that alcoholism was the top reason for marriages breaking up. "Fifty-seven percent of all the divorces in the Grant Study involved alcoholism," says Vaillant.

Contrary to popular belief, men didn't turn to drink after they lost their jobs or their spouses walked out. Instead, Vaillant discovered, alcoholism usually came first, leading to job trouble, bankruptcy, legal problems, or marital rifts.

For example, a man might tell Vaillant that he began drinking after his wife left him for a close friend. "So he lost his wife and best friend all at once. That's a sad story and would make almost anyone feel sorry for him," Vaillant says. But when the psychiatrist tactfully asked, "Well, did your wife complain about your drinking before she left?" many men would answer yes, he says. 

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