- Noa Fenigstein
What Makes a Happy Life? A Harvard Study on Happiness Has Some Advice
The most comprehensive of well-being and health in history says this 1 thing will make you live long
It is a common fact that about half of our happiness is based on our genetics. Some people are indeed prone to be happier than others. But what about the other half? And how can we influence the part of us that we inherited?
For decades, research has been done about one of the oldest questions in humanity – what makes us happy? Thankfully, much of this research suggests that while a big part of our potential for happiness is in our genes, about 40% of it comes from the choices we make. Our ability to influence our happiness is quite big, and now the only question is, how?
A Harvard Study of Happiness that started in 1938 and tracked the health 724 men divided into two groups: 268 Harvard University sophomores and 456 boys who grew up in Boston’s most poor and disadvantaged neighborhoods.
So, what is their most significant finding? Close relationships, more than money or fame, are what keep people happy throughout their lives. Happy and healthy relationships delay mental and physical decline and are better predictors of how long and content people are, better than social class, IQ, or even genes.
The Longest Run Study on Happiness
What started as a relatively small study in 1938, became one of the world’s longest studies of adult life. Of the original cohort of the Harvard study, only 19 are still alive, all in their mid-90s. However, researchers have expanded the study to include hundreds of new subjects – the original cohort’s children and even grandchildren throughout the years.
Over the years, the researchers measured things like physical and mental health, trying to track and connect trajectories and their relationship to careers, marriages, children, financial situation, etc. While taking care of one’s body was, of course, an essential factor in having a long and happy lifetime, it turned out tending to one’s relationship is just as important. In fact, these two factors have a strong correlation.
When researchers gathered together all the data they had on their subjects around the age of 50, they realized things like cholesterol levels, blood pressure, or even obesity were not the main factors that predicted how they would grow old. It was actually their level of satisfaction from their relationships.
Their main findings on the effects of relationships on our health can be divided into three main statements:
Social connections are really good for us, and loneliness actually kills. People who are more socially connected are happier, physically healthier, and live longer. People who are more isolated than they want to find that they are less happy, their health declines earlier, their brain functioning declines sooner, and they live shorter lives than people who are not lonely.
It’s not about how many friends you have or how long you’ve been married. Rather than numbers, good relationships are measured in quality. In fact, living in the midst of conflict is really bad for our health. High conflict marriages without affection could be worse for our health than divorce. Living in good warm relationships is protective of our health and mental state.
Good relationships don’t just protect our bodies; they protect our brains. In their 80s, the subjects who reported healthy and secure relationships had sharper memories. Those who felt like they could not count their partners experienced a faster decline in their memory and neurological functioning.
Sustaining Relationships With Others—and Yourself
At any given time, more than 1 in 5 Americans will report that they’re lonely. At a time of a global pandemic, many people feel more disconnected than ever. So how do we make sure we sustain our relationships through time? Here are a few tips to help you out:
See Each Other Face to Face
While things like COVID-19, or just distance, can mean solitude. However, relationship experts suggest doing your best to see your loved ones in person, and if that is not safe or accessible, at least see each other’s faces.
Make an effort to schedule time to meet regularly. If that is not possible, start chatting on a regular basis that provides a decent amount of intimacy. Instead of texting or calling, try mediums like FaceTime or Zoom.
Nurture Your Existing Relationships
Many people feel pressure to foster new relationships, especially if they’re living alone. However, many experts say it is actually more important to nurture your existing relationships rather than spend your energy on new connections.
As the Harvard study states, the quality of your relationships is more important than quantity. Peripheral relationships are often used as a distraction from the work required to strengthen more important, long-lasting primary relationships.
If you’re feeling lonely, instead of waiting for others to reach out to you, try reaching out to them. One of the best ways to develop strong connections is to be helpful to others.
Especially in a time of global stress and anxiety, offering help and support could make a huge difference in deepening your connections. It is often the small things that matter: just ask someone how they’re doing. If you can, offer help – get them coffee, help carry their groceries, or babysit once in a while.
Don’t Forget About Yourself
Your relationship with others cannot be healthy if you don’t have a healthy relationship with yourself. Studies show that the more we are isolated, the more our mental health deteriorates. Especially in times of hardship and anxiety, it is important to invest in your own happiness and mental health.
If you’re finding it hard to maintain healthy habits of happiness and self-care, try the Happy Things app. With simple, daily activities aimed to increase your happiness, the app provides a bite-sized start to your journey towards happiness and fulfillment.