How can I be happy?
Many of us ask this question. We map out our careers, activities, and life choices with the common goal of achieving the mysterious “happiness.” There are hundreds books and classes on achieving happiness, with a wide variety of voices expressing their opinions on how to achieve the feeling.
In surveys, many young people believe that wealth, power, and fame are the top factors contributing to happiness. But according to a Harvard study, the answer isn’t based off of who we become or what we own; it’s all about health and relationships.
The Harvard Study of Adult Development is a research project that has been going on since 1938, making it one of the longest-running happiness surveys. Tracking the lives of over 700 men (and in some cases, their spouses), the project has been a powerful tool in illustrating the factors that contribute to an individual’s likelihood to age happily or face loneliness and poor health.
Psychiatrist Robert Waldinger is the main man behind the 75-year-old study. He reveals some of the information in his TED Talk, which has garnered over 7 million views and 400 responses. Rather than ask subjects to reflect on their past, the study followed these 700 men throughout their entire lives by regularly checking in and asking questions. Waldinger is the fourth director of the study, and most of the subjects are well into their 90s.
The study first started in Boston during the 1930s with two different groups of young men. The first group consisted of Harvard college students, who were originally chosen for a separate study where researchers wanted to understand the various factors that might lead to success. The second group came from a project led by Harvard Law School professor Sheldon Glueck, who was also studying young men. These boys, however, were “from some of Boston’s poorest neighborhoods, including 456 who managed to avoid delinquency.” Eventually, the two studies merged into one.
Most of the men were around the ages of 19 and 20. Over the next few decades, the subjects would go on to pursue multiple walks of life. According to Waldinger, they would become everything from factory workers to doctors. A man named John F. Kennedy even went on to be President of the United States. Some developed schizophrenia and some became alcoholics.
“Some climbed the social ladder all the way from the bottom to the very top, and some made that journey in the opposite direction,” Waldinger reported.
When it came time to check in with the subjects, researchers didn’t simply send a questionnaire. They interviewed the men in their living rooms, talked to their children, looked at their medical records, and videotaped them talking to their wives. Eventually they asked these women to join the study, to which the women replied, “It’s about time.”
Researchers discovered a common pattern. The people who were the happiest and healthiest had good relationships.
“People who are more socially connected to family, to friends, to community, are happier,” Waldinger said. “They’re physically happier, and they live longer than people who are less connected. The experience of loneliness turns out to be toxic.”
Waldinger admits that people can be in relationships or in a crowd and still be lonely. The key is the quality of the relationship. That doesn’t mean a complete lack of head-butting; many happy couples and families exhibited bickering. But the truly happy individuals were those who felt as though they had loved ones that they felt they could count on. Living entirely in conflict, or in a world without affection, can be detrimental to our happiness and our health.
So what do we do? Waldinger suggests leaning into our relationships, such as replacing screen time with people time, or livening up a stale relationship by doing something new together. We can reach out to estranged family members or make time for old friends.
The good life is not lived alone. According to the Harvard Study of Adult Development, the good life is built on good relationships.
Amanda Kohr is a 25-year-old writer and photographer with a penchant for yoga, food, and travel. She prefers to bathe in the moonlight rather than the sun, and enjoys living in a state of the three C’s: cozy, creative, and curious. When she’s not writing, you can find her driving her VW Bug, looking for the next roadside attraction or family diner. She also roams the internet at amandakohr.com and through Instagram.