How many people can say by the time they reach their eighties that they have had a happy and fulfilling life? My guess is not many.
What if someone were to tell us at the beginning of our lives what the secret to a happy and fulfilling life is? Would we do our best to follow that advice?
Can you guess what it is?
Hint: it’s not the villa on the hill overlooking the ocean with your yacht bobbing peacefully in the breeze.
Harvard scientists have conducted a 75-year-study and have found that what makes for a fulling life is not wealth, success or fame.
It is something far simpler but not always easy to achieve.
According to Robert Waldinger, director of the study:
“The clearest message that we get from this 75-year study is this: Good relationships keep us happier and healthier.”
The most important things are not money or fame
The Study of Adult Development is a longitudinal study that has been tracking two very different groups of men over the last 75 years: Harvard students and poor men from inner-city neighborhoods. Harvard’s Grant Study has been following 268 Harvard graduates from the classes of 1939-1944 and the Glueck Study group is made up of 456 men who grew up in the inner-city neighborhoods of Boston.
It seems like a no-brainer: of course those Harvard students from way back, who had the world at their feet, stood a much greater chance at happiness than the poor guys who had to fight for simple survival on a daily basis.
Not so, says Waldinger: “The most important things are not money or fame but relationships. Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period.”
Makes sense, doesn’t it? A meaningful relationship doesn’t require any money. A little comfort and compassion fills the heart and the senses in a way that no currency can.
What can we learn from the Harvard research study?
But can we learn more from this kind of study than from simply asking our grandparents how to live in order to have a good life?
Yes, a study like this gives more reliable information.
People forget a lot about their lives and what they remember is not always accurate, explains Waldinger. A study like this follows people through their lives, from being teenagers right to old age, tracking the choices they made through life, what kept them happy and healthy.
For 75 years, the researchers tracked the lives of 724 men, year after year, asking about their work, their home lives and their health not knowing how their life stories were going to turn out.
Waldinger says they have learned three big lessons about relationships:
“The first is that 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.”
However, it’s not a simple fact of having loads of friends and relationships.
One can be with friends, with your lover, with your parents and be very alone. In fact, there is nothing lonelier than feeling alone with someone right next to you.
So, the second thing the research has shown is that it’s the quality, not the quantity of our relationships that makes the difference.
“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,” says Waldinger.
Living in strife affects our health very negatively. High-conflict marriages, for example, without much affection, turn out to be very bad for our health, perhaps worse than getting divorced.
Warm and caring relationships have the opposite effect.
The third thing is that 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.”
These relationships don’t need to be perfect; as long as a person feels that they can count on the other person that gives them a sense of protection, which actually does protect their health and well-being.
How to put these insights into practice
People who fare best in life are those who leaned in to relationships, with family, with friends, with community, says Waldinger.
How can we do we do that?
Says Waldinger: “Well, the possibilities are practically endless. It might be something as simple as replacing 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.”
For a deeper insight into the Harvard research study, check out Waldinger’s TED talk below.