Harvard’s Method For A Happy Life

According to the longest research ever made

Photo by Matthew Bennett on Unsplash

The study was called the “Harvard Study of Adult Development,” and it’s goal was to observe people for an entire lifetime to determine what keeps people happy and healthy throughout life.

Since 1938, for 75 years, Harvard tracked the lives of 724 men. Tracking 268 Harvard sophomores during the Great Depression, they hoped the study would reveal clues to leading healthy and happy lives.

During the intervening decades, the control groups have expanded. In the 1970s, 456 boys from Boston’s poorest neighborhoods were enlisted as part of the study. More than a decade ago, researchers began including wives in the studies.

“If you were going to invest, now, in your future self, where would you put your money and energy?” — Robert Waldinger

According to a recent survey of millennials, more than 80% of them said a major life goal was to get rich. 50% said another major life goal was to become famous. We are always taught that achieving more, working harder, climbing up the ladder will make us happy and ensure a good life. BUT THIS STUDY HAD DIFFERENT RESULTS.

When entering the study, all of these teenagers were interviewed; they were given medical exams, the researchers went to their homes. Slowly these teenagers turned into adults, they became lawyers, doctors, factory workers, some developed alcoholism, some developed schizophrenia, some climbed the social ladder from the bottom all the way up, and some did the exact opposite.

Every two years, the researchers call all the men (still alive) and ask if they can send them one more set of questions about their lives. To get the most precise picture of their life, they don’t just send questions; they interview them in their living room, they get their medical records, they draw their blood, they scan their brains, they talk to their children, they videotaped them talking with their wives talking about their deepest concerns. Many of the Boston boys ask, “Why do you keep wanting to study me? My life just isn’t that interesting,” the Harvard men never asked that question.

The lessons aren’t about wealth or fame or working harder and harder. The clearest message that we get is GOOD RELATIONSHIPS KEEP US HAPPIER AND HEALTHIER.

The main 3 lessons they learned about relationships:

  1. Social connections are really good for us- The people that were more connected to friends, family, and communities are happier, they’re physically healthier, and they live longer than less connected people.

Loneliness kills- people who are more isolated from others than they want to be, find that they are less happy, their health declines earlier in mid-life, their brain functioning declines sooner, and their life is shorter.

At any given time, more than 1 in 5 Americans will report that they are lonely.

2. It’s not about the number of friends you have or whether or not you are in a committed relationship- It is about the quality of your close relationships. Living in the midst of conflict is VERY bad for our health. For example, high-conflict marriages without much affection turn out to harm our health, usually worth than getting a divorce. On the contrary, living in the midst of a good warm relationship is protective.

Once most of the men reached their 80’s, the researchers looked back at them in mid-life to see if they could predict who would be a happy, healthy person. When they gathered all of their information, it wasn’t their middle-aged cholesterol levels that predicted how they were going to grow old. It was how satisfied they were in their relationships. THE PEOPLE THAT WERE THE MOST SATISFIED IN THEIR RELATIONSHIPS AT AGE 50 WERE THE HEALTHIEST AT AGE 80.

The most happily-partnered men and women reported in their 80’s that on the days they had more physical pain, their mood stayed just as happy. But, the people that were in unhappy relationships, on the days they felt more physical pain it was magnified by more emotional pain.

3. GOOD RELATIONSHIPS PROTECT DON’T JUST PROTECT OUR BODIES, THEY PROTECT OUR BRAINS- Being in a secure, attached relationship in your 80’s is protective. The people in relationships where they feel that they can count on the other person at times of need have a better memory for longer. On the other side, people that are in a relationship, and they feel like they can not count on the other one, suffer from earlier memory decline.

Those good relationships don’t have to be smooth all the time, but as long as they felt that they could trust each other when things get tough, those arguments didn’t take a toll on their memories.

The fact that good relationships are good for our health and well-being are well known. So, why is it so hard to get and so easy to ignore? Well, because we are humans, we like a ‘quick fix.’ Relationships are messy, complicated, they demand constant work and nurturing, it is not always sexy and fun AND, it is life-long, it never ends. The people in the study that were the happiest in retirement were the ones that throughout life have actively worked to replace workmates with play-mates. Good relationships are worth the work for your mental health, physical health, and your happiness.

There isn’t time- so brief is life — for bickerings, apologies, heartburnings, callings to account. there is only time for loving, but an instant, so to speak, for that.” — Mark Twain

All of this information is from Harvard’s website and Robert Waldinger’s Ted talk.



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