What Makes People Happy?

I recently discovered possibly the longest study of adult life that there has ever been: The Harvard Study of Adult Development. This study started in 1938 and for over 80 years they tracked the lives of more than 700 men and it now continues to study the lives of over 2000 of their offspring.

The original study consisted of two groups of men - the first a group of sophomores from Harvard who mostly went on to serve in the Second World War, the second a group of boys from Boston’s poorest neighbourhoods. Their lives were tracked yearly and they answered questions on their health, their relationships, their work, their happiness… basically everything to do with their lives. As the project developed, so did the methods of research. The subjects are interviewed, their blood is tested and their brains are scanned… and in more recent years it has become a highly in-depth and medicalised study.

I was so interested to hear that the main result of this study is that: Relationships are key to health and happiness. This is what the data showed and continues to show:

  • Relationships bring us happiness, good physical health and allow us to live longer. Loneliness causes our health to decline earlier on in life and ultimately those who are isolated lead less happier and shorter lives.

  • Living in conflict is terrible for our health. The quality of our relationships is really important - we are nurtured and protected (physically and mentally) by loving and warm relationships.

  • When looking at those in their 50’s it wasn’t cholesterol levels that were an indicator of how they would grow old into their 80’s, but it was the quality of their relationships that mattered. Those most satisfied in their relationships in their 50’s were the healthiest in their 80’s.

  • Good relationships not only protect our bodies but our brains too. Those happy in their relationships had better memories than those who were lonely or unhappy in their relationships.

  • Financial success depends more on the warmth of your relationships than how intelligent you are.

  • The warmth of a child’s relationship with their parents has a significant impact on adulthood health and happiness.

  • Taking care of your relationships is ultimately a form of self-care.

  • Relationships are a better predictor of lives than social class, IQ or money.

I’ll leave you with this quote.

“When the study began, nobody cared about empathy or attachment. But the key to healthy ageing is relationships, relationships, relationships.”

— George Vaillant

Sources: What Makes a good Life - Robert Waldinger TED Talk. The Harvard Gazette. Adult Development Study.

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Sophie Dear