How To Live a Happy Life – The Harvard Study That Started it All » HAPPINESS FOR CYNICS

How to Live a Happy Life

The Benefits of Social Bonds For a Happy Life 

Like any scientific field, positive psychology has a raft of research and many competing voices. Yet, if there’s one thing nearly all of the scientific community agrees on, it’s that community and connection are critical elements of good mental health. The one, sure-fire way to bolster and boost your happiness is with strong relationships with friends and family.  

Studies show that social people are more happy, and happy people are also more social. The happiest people have a core group of people they can talk to and tend to have a wide community network, through activities like church or regular volunteering.  

Their close friends and family help to amplify the mental health benefits of happy times – celebrating and cheering them on when things are going well. On the flip side, happy people can depend on their friends and family when things get tough. Close friends and family provide a shoulder to cry on, and they’ll will pick you up and push you forward when you get stuck and when life gets you down.  

We know all this thanks to many, many studies. There’s this study, which showed that social engagement and connectedness may simply be the single most powerful factors for cognitive performance in old age. There’s also this 2019 study by Harvard Medical School, which revealed that people who have close social connections, have reduced levels of Cortisol (stress hormone). 

But if you want to understand the importance of building deep connections with others to your health and wellbeing, there’s one definitive study that started them all: The Harvard Study of Adult Development.  

Related reading: How To Make Friends As An Adult 

The Study That Started Them All: The Harvard Study of Adult Development 

The Study of Adult Development is a longitudinal study which aims to identify the psychosocial predictors of healthy aging. This ongoing Harvard study is considered one of the world’s longest studies of adult life – starting in 1938 during the Great Depression. 

Over that time, researchers have followed the lives of two groups of men: the Grant Study includes 268 Harvard graduates from the classes of 1939-1944 and the Glueck Study includes 456 men who grew up in the inner-city neighborhoods of Boston. 

Over more than 80 years, researchers have tracked the lives of these 724 men, following up with each one annually to ask about their work, home lives and health. Researchers sent out questionnaires, conducted in-person interviews, collected medical records from their doctors, drew blood, and scanned brains and more. These mental and physical health and social variables helped reporters understand how these factors could predict health and wellbeing in late life.  

With such a raft of information, researchers have been able to publish findings on dozens of topics, including what aspects of childhood and adult experience predict the quality of intimate relationships in late life, and how late life marriage is linked with health and wellbeing, such as these recently published papers.  

In 2015, about 60 of the original 724 men were still alive and participating in the study, most of them in their 90s. And the study had begun a new phase, called the Second Generation Study, in which researchers began studying more than 2,000 children of the original participants. 

Related reading: Are Strong Friendships the Answer to Your Covid Woes? 

What One of The World’s Longest Studies Tells us About Living a Happy Life 

So, what have we learned from this study?  

As mentioned at the beginning of this article, perhaps the most important lessons we’ve learned from this epic, ground-breaking study is that wellbeing and happiness are intricately and strongly linked to friendships, social connection and love. 

Robert Waldinger, a psychiatrist and professor at Harvard Medical School, is the fourth and current director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development. “The surprising finding is that our relationships and how happy we are in our relationships has a powerful influence on our health,” Waldinger said in The Harvard Gazette in 2017. “Taking care of your body is important, but tending to your relationships is a form of self-care too. That, I think, is the revelation.” 

The study has shown that the people who fared the best were the people who leaned into relationships, with family, with friends, with community. “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” said Waldinger in his widely popular 2015 Ted Talk. “The clearest message that we get from this 75-year study is this: Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period.”  

On the flip side, people who are lonely or more isolated than they want to be from people are less happy and their as they reach middle age, their health declines and they end up leading shorter lives.  

In the end, it’s the quality of close friendships and relationships that mattered. When looking at the data over time, the researchers wanted to see if they could predict who would make it to their eighties and be happy.  

“When we gathered together everything we knew about them at age 50, it wasn’t their middle age cholesterol levels that predicted how they were going to grow old. It was how satisfied they were in their relationships. The people who were the most satisfied in their relationships at age 50 were the healthiest at age 80,” said Waldinger. “And good, close relationships seem to buffer us from some of the slings and arrows of getting old. Our most happily partnered men and women reported, in their 80s, that on the days when they had more physical pain, their mood stayed just as happy. But the people who were in unhappy relationships, on the days when they reported more physical pain, it was magnified by more emotional pain.” 

Want to learn more about the science of happiness? Make sure to subscribe to my podcast Happiness for Cynics and my email newsletter for regular updates & resilience resources!   

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