I think almost everyone wants to lead a happy life. But how do we do it? Do we need to be rich? Do we need to be famous? What’s the secret to a happy life? That is the question that the Harvard Study of Adult Development tried to answer.
The Harvard Study of Adult Development is a longitudinal study that spanned 75 years. It tracked 724 men – 268 physically- and mentally-healthy Harvard college sophomores and another 456 disadvantaged nondelinquent inner-city youths who grew up in Boston neighborhoods. The study doesn’t just ask the men questions. The investigators draw blood, scan their brains, talk to their children. And after years of painstaking work, the study the secret to a happy life. It has far less to do with wealth and fame than it does with just one factor – the type of relationships the person has.
Three key lessons of the study are:
- “Social connections are really good for us, and that loneliness kills. It turns out that 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. And the experience of loneliness turns out to be toxic. People who are more isolated than they want to be from others find that they are less happy, their health declines earlier in midlife, their brain functioning declines sooner and they live shorter lives than people who are not lonely.”
- “It‘s not just the number of friends you have, and it’s not whether or not you’re in a committed relationship, but it’s the quality of your close relationships that matters. It turns out that living in the midst of conflict is really bad for our health. High-conflict marriages, for example, without much affection, turn out to be very bad for our health, perhaps worse than getting divorced. And living in the midst of good, warm relationships is protective.”
- “Good relationships don’t just protect our bodies, they protect our brains. It turns out that being in a securely attached relationship to another person in your 80s is protective, that the people who are in relationships where they really feel they can count on the other person in times of need, those people’s memories stay sharper longer. And the people in relationships where they feel they really can’t count on the other one,those are the people who experience earlier memory decline. “
The study found that how satisfied you are with your relationships at age 50 is a better predictor of your health at age 80 than your cholesterol levels. People who are happiest in their retirement are those who are best able to actively replace “workmates with new playmates”.
While the study was done on American males, it is very likely that the same results apply to all of us. So in the coming year, perhaps it would be wise to invest more time and effort in building warm relationships. Or as the current director of the study said: replace “screen time with people time or livening up a stale relationship by doing something new together, long walks or date nights, or reaching out to that family member who you haven’t spoken to in years, because those all-too-common family feuds take a terrible toll on the people who hold the grudges.”
Or as Mark Twain wrote: “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.”
Here’s to more warm and meaningful relationships with people in the coming year.
[Featured image: photo from simpleminders.com]