What Researchers Know About Building a Happy Life

Holding hands

Written by: Alicia Cassels, MA, MFLN Blog Contributor

You may have heard about a Harvard study of adult development that has, to date, run consecutively for more than 80 years. Initially the study included only male students from Harvard. The subject pool was expanded to include a more diverse set of subjects. Over time, the participant pool has expanded to include additional subjects. Results continue to point to significant commonalities among participants. Some of the most striking commonalities among diverse study participants include findings around what makes a happy, healthy life. Results of the ongoing study continue to reveal that, in essence, a single factor is highly correlated to happiness, physical health, mental wellbeing, and emotional health, regardless of participant demographics.  -And it’s not what you might think.

What is more important to health and happiness than money or socioeconomic status?

The Harvard study revealed that human connection is the greatest predictor of physical health, emotional wellbeing, and happiness. According to the director of the study,

Close relationships, more than money or fame, are what keep people happy throughout their lives, the study revealed. Those ties protect people from life’s discontents, help to delay mental and physical decline, and are better predictors of long and happy lives than social class, IQ, or even genes.

Robert WaldingerPsychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital, Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

Regardless of race or social status, the people who reported that they were the most satisfied with their personal relationships at age 50 were also the healthiest in their 80’s. The people who reported having better relationships in their 80’s also had better memories.

These findings are not limited to the Harvard Study. A study published in 1988, authored by James S. House, Karl R. Landis, and Debra Umberson found that the inverse is also true,

Lack of social connection is a greater detriment to health than obesity, smoking and high blood pressure.

A Dangerous Trend

Unfortunately, social connections are decreasing at alarming rates. In a piece published by The Stanford Medicine Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, Dr. Emma Seppala outlines a growing social epidemic,

The modal number of close others (i.e., people with whom one feels comfortable sharing a personal problem) Americans claimed to have in 1985 was only three. In 2004 it dropped to zero, with over 25% of Americans saying that they have no one to confide in. This survey suggests that one in four people that we meet may have no one they call a close friend!

What Can We Do?

(1). Prioritize what matters most. Spend time building and strengthening relationships with family and friends. It is important to note that research indicates that quality, not quantity matters here. It is the value, not the number of the relationships that counts.

(2). Learn more about the research.

  • Watch Waldnger’s TED Talk about the Harvard study.
  • Learn about a second generation of the original Harvard study is currently underway. If you would like to learn more about this study visit click here.

References

House, J., Landis, K. and Umberson, D. (1988). Social relationships and health. Science, 241(4865), pp.540-545.

Mineo. Liz. Harvard. April 11, 2017 Good jeans are nice but Joy is better Liz Mineo Harvard Staff Writer DATE April 11, 2017 https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2017/04/over-nearly-80-years-harvard-study-has-been-showing-how-to-live-a-healthy-and-happy-life/ [Accessed 27 July, 2019].

Seppala, Emma. Connectedness& Health: The Science of Social Connection – The Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education http://ccare.stanford.edu/uncategorized/connectedness-health-the-science-of-social-connection-infographic/ [Accessed28 July, 2019].

 

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