3 lessons about happiness learned from an 80-year Harvard study
What is the secret to living a happy life? Well, the longest-running study on human happiness has revealed the three key factors to maintaining a successful and fulfilled existence – and no, it doesn’t involve money.
A new book, titled The Good Life, is based on an 80-year-long study conducted by the Harvard Study of Adult Development at Harvard Medical School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The study, which is now led by professors Robert Waldinger and Marc Schulz, began in 1938 when researchers set out to learn what makes a life meaningful.
In the 1930s, the study recruited 724 participants, some of whom were students at Harvard and others who came from low-income neighbourhoods in Boston. At the start of the study, the men underwent medical examinations and their parents were interviewed to give researchers a deep understanding of their lives.
Every two years, these men were asked questions about their lives, including the quality of their marriages, job satisfaction, and social activities. Their physical health – such as chest X-rays, blood tests, urine tests, and echocardiograms – was examined every five years. Eventually, their wives and children joined the study and 25 participants even donated their brains to the study after they died.
Throughout the study’s 80-year span, one theme stands out as positively impacting participants’ physical health, mental health, and longevity. That is, the importance of maintaining quality relationships.
Professor Waldinger, who is the fourth director of the study over its lifetime, discussed the findings of the one-of-a-kind study in a 2015 TED Talk that has since been viewed more than 44 million times.
Below are the three lessons to living a “good life”.
In his Ted Talk, Professor Waldinger said that social connections are beneficial to health, and warned that loneliness can kill. According to the Harvard study, the men who reported being closer to their family, friends, or community tended to be happier and healthier than their less social counterparts. They also tended to live longer.
By comparison, those who said they were lonelier reported feeling less happy, as well as having worse physical and mental health.
Quality over quantity
While being lonely is harmful, being surrounded by people isn’t necessarily helpful in itself, explained Professor Waldinger. Rather, it’s the strength of these relationships with others that can predict the health of both our bodies and our brains as we go through life.
“We know that you can be lonely in a crowd and lonely in a marriage,” he said in the Ted Talk.
In fact, marriages which are marked by conflict can be as bad for your health, and in some cases worse, than getting divorced. Meanwhile, "living in the midst of good warm relationships is protective" he said.
It’s not just being in a relationship that matters. Married couples who said they argued constantly and had low affection for one another – which researchers defined as “high-conflict marriages” – were actually less happy than people who weren’t married at all, the Harvard study found.
Strong relationships are good for the mind and the body
People who feel they can count on another person when they face trouble have a stronger memory, while those who don’t have strong relationships can face decline earlier.
However, Waldinger stressed that a good relationship isn’t a perfect one, and said that while many of the couples studied bickered, they ultimately knew that they had someone to support them in times of strife.
He concluded by telling listeners that maintaining good relationships is hard work and is not a quick fix to health and happiness - but he emphasised that the study repeatedly proved the benefits of persevering.
Simple actions, such as spending more time with people and maintaining long-lasting relationships, can boost a person’s health and lead to a long, happy life.