What the Longest Study on Happiness Ever Reveals

 

Psychiatrist Robert Waldinger is the director of the longest study on happiness in history. It was conducted by Harvard, and lasted over 75-years. In a recent TED Talk, Mr. Waldinger reviewed the key findings from this historic study.

What Keeps Us Healthy and Happy?

To begin with Mr. Waldinger poses the question: ‘What keeps us healthy and happy a we go through life?’ Or, to put it another, Mr. Waldinger asks: ‘If you were going to invest now in your future best self, where would you put your time and energy?’ According to Mr. Waldinger, in a recent study which asked millennials what their major life goals were, over 80% of them answered that it was to get rich. Another 50% answered that a major life goal was to become famous. To determine whether or not achieving these things matter toward happiness, Mr. Waldinger says it’d be necessary to study people’s entire lives. From the time they were teenagers all the way into old age.

The Longest Study of Adult Life Ever Done

Fortunately, such a study has been done. The study was called the Harvard Study of Adult Development and it’s goal was to observe people for an entire lifetime in order to determine what really keeps people happy and healthy throughout life. For 75 years, Harvard tracked the lives of 724 men. Year-after-year, the study asked these men about their work, their home lives, and their health, all the while not knowing how their life stories would turn out.

A One-of-A-Kind Study

According to Mr. Waldinger, studies like this are exceedingly rare. Often such studies end within a decade because either funding dries up, participants leave, or any number of other things goes wrong. However, Mr. Waldinger states that through a combination of luck, and the persistence of several generations of researches, this study has survived. According to Mr. Waldinger, as of 2015 sixty of the men are still alive, most in their 90’s, and still participating in the study. The researchers are also now beginning the interview the more than 2,000 children these men have had as well.

According to Mr. Waldinger, since 1938, the study has tracked two groups of men. The first group started at Harvard as sophomores and the second group was a group of boys from one of Boston’s poorest neighborhood. Over their lives, the participants in this study entered an extremely varied number of careers. Some experienced abject failure, some success, and one even became President of the United States.

Every two years, the researchers called up these men and asked if they could send them another set of questions about their lives. These were not simple questionnaires however. According to Mr. Walinger, they also interviewed these men in person, got their medical records, scanned their brains, interviewed them with their wives talking about their deepest concerns, and every other measure of involvement the researchers deemed fit.

The Clearest Message From the Study

So, what are the lessons such in-depth studying has derived from observing these hundreds of lives? According to Mr. Waldinger, the most important lessons have nothing to do with wealth or fame, or working harder and harder. ‘The clearest message we get from this 75-year study is this: Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period.”

The 3 Big Lessons About Relationships Learned

According to Mr. Walinger, this study has shed light on three big lessons on relationships. The first is that social connections are really good for us, and that loneliness kills. According to Mr. Walinger, “It turns out people who are more socially connected, to family, to friends, to community, are happier, they’re physically healthier, and they live longer than people who are less well connected.” According to Mr. Walinger, lonely people are less happy, see an earlier decline in health in midlife, their brain functioning declines sooner, and they live shorter lives. Perhaps the saddest fact however is that at any given time more than 1-in-5 Americans report being lonely.

According to Mr. Walinger, you can be lonely in a crowd, and lonely in a marriage as well. So, the second biggest finding was that the number of friends and committed relationships people have don’t matter, it’s the quality of those close relationships that matter. Living in high-conflict relationships turns out to be extremely bad for our health. Warm and happy relationships were very good for people’s health. According to Mr. Walinger, when looking back at these men when they were at age 50, the ones who reported being the happiest and the healthiest in their 80s were the ones who were most satisfied with their relationships at age 50. According to Mr. Walinger, good relationships seemed to buffer people from the slings and arrows of getting old. “Our most happily partnered men and women reported, in their 80s, that on the days when they had more physical pain, their mood stayed just as happy. But the people who were in unhappy relationships, on the days when they reported more physical pain, it was magnified by more emotional pain.”

The third big lesson this study revealed was that good relationships also protect our brains. According to Mr. Walinger, those who are in a relationship where they feel protected and feel like they can count on their partner when they’re in their 80s have memories that stay sharper longer. Those in less happy relationships experience earlier mental decline. This doesn’t mean the good couples didn’t fight, just that they knew they could count on the other person when the going really got tough.

What Truly Brings Us Happiness

According to Mr. Walinger, these findings – that good close relationships are good for our health and well-being – is nothing new. Why then, does everyone not take this advice? Because, good relationships are tough to maintain. It takes a lot of work, effort, and understanding. It is a life-long endeavor. According to Mr. Walinger, those who were happiest in retirement were whose who had actively worked to replace their co-workers with new playmates. According to Mr. Walinger, just like the millennials in the recent study, most of the men in this study felt when they were just starting out that what would make them happy was fame, fortune, and success. However, according to Mr. Walinger, over-and-over what this study has shown is that the people who fared the best were the people who leaned into relationships, with family, with friends, and with community. According to Mr. Walinger, it is far better to reach out and maintain the relationships we have than it is to not pick up the phone or to hold a grudge.

In closing, Mr. Walinger ends by quoting Mark Twain who, more than a century ago, in looking back on his own life said, “There isn’t time, so brief is life, for bickerings, apologies, heartburnings, callings to account. There is only time for loving, and but an instant, so to speak, for that.” According to Mr. Walinger, “The good life is built with good relationships.”

 

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