A happy life boils down to one thing, according to an 80-year Harvard study

Here at Ideapod, I write about productivity, habits, relationships, resilience, and more. 

But what is the ultimate goal of all these things?


There are many things that can aid in making us more content, but an 80–year Harvard study has revealed one thing that stands out. 

And it might surprise you. 

While I love studies, they often lack depth and can be contradictory on things as subjective as happiness. However, this is one of the most in-depth studies on the topic, literally spanning generations. 

Okay, let’s get down to it. What does a happy life boil down to for most people? 

Is it money? Nope. 

How about career success? I am afraid not.

Education? Nope. 

Genetics? No. 

The study found that positive relationships have the greatest impact on happiness.

To some of you, this will come as no surprise. After all, it’s no secret that happy relationships are a crucial part of our lives. 

However, when we dive into the details, the study reveals even more. 

I was shocked to discover some of them. I’d bet you will be too. 

Today, we cover five key takeaways from the study that may change your perspective on happiness and relationships. 

Let’s dive in. 

1) It might be time to rethink our goals 

We all have goals in life, and if achieved, most of us hope they will bring us lasting happiness. But are we aiming at the wrong thing?

For many of us, our goals revolve around money, whether we admit it or not. 

According to a survey by Gallup, 69% of goal-setters said they would set financial goals for 2023. In the same survey, only 40% of people were likely to set goals for their relationships of social life. 

Another fairly recent survey revealed that 29% of Gen Z and 22% of millennial investors’ primary goal is to get rich. 

Look, I am not going to tell you that money isn’t important. Let’s be frank; it is. 

Studies suggest that for most of us, making more money does increase happiness. 

But should it be so high on our list of goals?

This Harvard study would argue that money and climbing the career ladder are of less importance when compared to relationships over the long term. 

For many of us, myself included, it may be time to rethink what our goals are and how we prioritize them. 

This point may not have come as a huge surprise. The next one just might. 

2) Loneliness kills

Sounds dramatic, I know. But the research would suggest it’s true. 

In his now very popular TED talk, the study director, Robert Waldinger, noted that study participants who maintained good relationships lived longer lives.

He also mentioned that “loners’ died earlier. 

That is, relationships were found to be a predictor of not only happiness but also physical health. 

Discovering this was shocking for me. 

He said, “The people who were the most satisfied in their relationships at age 50 were the healthiest at age 80,”.

He even suggested that for middle-aged people, happy relationships were a better predictor of longevity than their cholesterol levels!

Studies on blue zones, or areas where people live longer, also usually mention relationships as a factor. A study from Italy’s Cilento region revealed that one of the qualities people over 90 years old had in common was close bonds with family. 

All of this is quite worrying when we look at some other figures. 

Survey results posted by the American Psychiatric Association suggest that in 2019, 61% of Americans were lonely, and 49% reported that they lacked companionship.

If you, like many of us, have been neglecting the important relationships in your life, it might be time to give them the attention they deserve. 

3) Choosing a partner you can count on is crucial 

If someone apologizes in these ways theyre not genuinely sorry 2 A happy life boils down to one thing, according to an 80-year Harvard study

This probably isn’t new information for you. After all, none of us strive to have an unhappy relationship with our significant other. 

However, the study revealed some interesting details in relation to this, cementing the importance of choosing the right partner

In his TED talk, Waldinger mentioned that being in a secure marriage can help us to retain a sharper memory for longer.

He also mentioned that high-conflict marriages are actually worse for us than divorce. 

It’s important to note, however, a good relationship doesn’t mean that you don’t fight. It means that, as put by Waldinger, you can “really count on” your partner. 

4) Struggle is not permanent, nor is ‘success’

It is often believed that once people become adults, they don’t change that much. Well, this study would suggest that this isn’t actually the case. 

Many people who did not have it together when they were in they were their twenties did when they were in their 80s. Others, who were considered successful early in life, went the other way. 

If you are struggling right now, this should give you some hope. 

If everything is great, remember it can all go away, so be grateful for it and hold on tight. 

We all know this next point, but we often need reminding. 

5) Happiness is a process, not a destination 

In closing his inspirational speech, Waldinger noted that while we’d like a “quick fix’ for happiness, there isn’t one.

If you are a regular reader of this site, you probably know that already.  

We have to work to make relationships work for us. And often, that means first working on ourselves. 

It takes time, patience, and strength to maintain great relationships. And often, we have to remake them. Waldinget mentioned in his speech that the happiest elderly people were those who made the effort to develop new friendships after retiring. 

Happiness, therefore, is not a destination we one day arrive at. It’s a continual process of building and maintaining, 

The bottom line

Happiness, when we break it down, is the ultimate goal for many of us. 

But to say lasting happiness is difficult to achieve would be a huge understatement. We can work toward it, however. 

While everyone’s journey is different, studies like this one can help to reveal a path forward and identify limiting beliefs or goals we may have. 

I hope you found this post enjoyable to read and that the findings of the study have given you as much to think about as they did for me. 

Until next time.  

Picture of Mal James

Mal James

Originally from Ireland, Mal is a content writer, entrepreneur, and teacher with a passion for self-development, productivity, relationships, and business. As an avid reader, Mal delves into a diverse range of genres, expanding his knowledge and honing his writing skills to empower readers to embark on their own transformative journeys. In his downtime, Mal can be found on the golf course or exploring the beautiful landscapes and diverse culture of Vietnam, where he is now based.

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