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How Fostering Relationships May Be the Key to Happiness

This article was based on the TEDxBeaconStreet talk, “What Makes a Good Life? Lessons From the Longest Study on Happiness,” by Robert Waldinger:


Where Does Happiness Come From?

Have you ever wondered what keeps us healthy and happy as we go through life? If you were going to invest now in your future best self, where would you put your time and your energy? In a recent survey, over 80 percent of millennials said that a major life goal for them was to get rich. Another 50 percent of those same young adults said that another major life goal was to become famous. 


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We are constantly told to lean into work, push harder, and achieve more. We’re given the impression that these are the things that we need to go after in order to have a good life. Most of what we know about human life comes from what people remember of the past.  The challenge is that we forget vast amounts of what happens to us, and sometimes, memory isn’t always accurate. 


A Study on Happiness

What if we could watch entire lives as they unfold through time? What if we could study people from the time that they were teenagers all the way into old age to see what really keeps people happy and healthy? The Harvard Study of Adult Development did just that, and it may be the longest study of adult life that’s ever been done. For 75 years, researchers tracked the lives of 724 men, year after year, asking about their work, their home lives, their health, and of course asking all along the way without knowing how their life stories were going to turn out. 


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Since 1938, the study tracked the lives of two groups of men. The first group started in the study when they were sophomores at Harvard College. They all finished college during World War II, and then most went off to serve in the war. The second group included boys from Boston’s poorest neighbourhoods who were chosen for the study specifically because they were from some of the most troubled and disadvantaged families. Most lived in tenements, many without hot and cold running water. 

When they entered the study, all of these teenagers were interviewed. They were given medical exams. Researchers went to their homes and interviewed their parents. Then these teenagers grew up into adults who entered all walks of life. They became factory workers and lawyers, bricklayers and doctors. One even became President of the United States. Some developed alcoholism. A few developed schizophrenia. Others climbed the social ladder from the bottom all the way to the very top, and some made that journey in the opposite direction. 

Through a combination of luck and the persistence of several generations of researchers, this study is still ongoing. About 60 of the original 724 men are still alive and participating in the study, most of them in their 90s. The researchers are now beginning to study the more than 2,000 children of these men. 

To get the clearest picture of these lives, the researchers use questionnaires and in-person interviews.  They get medical records from their doctors. They draw their blood, scan their brains, and talk to their children. They videotape them talking with their families about their deepest concerns. 

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Three Lessons About Relationships

What are the lessons that come from the tens of thousands of pages of information that has been generated on these lives? Well, the lessons aren’t about wealth or fame or working harder and harder. The message that stands out from this 75-year study is that good relationships keep us happier and healthier. 


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The researchers learned three lessons about relationships from the study. The first is that social connections are really good for us, while loneliness kills. It turns out that people who are more socially connected to family, friends, and their community are happier, physically healthier, and live longer than people who are less connected. People who are more isolated than they want to be from others find that they are less happy, their health declines earlier in midlife, their brain functioning declines sooner, and they live shorter lives than people who are not lonely. 

It’s possible to be lonely in a crowd, but you can also be lonely in a marriage, so the second big lesson was that the quality of your close relationships matters. It turns out that living in the midst of conflict is really bad for our health. High-conflict marriages, for example, without much affection, turn out to be very bad for our health, perhaps worse than getting divorced. Living in the midst of good, warm relationships is protective. The people who were the most satisfied in their relationships at age 50 were the healthiest at age 80. The 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. However, the people who were in unhappy relationships, on the days when they reported more physical pain, it was magnified by more emotional pain. 

The third big lesson was 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. The people who are in relationships where they really feel they can count on the other person in times of need, have sharper memories. The people in relationships where they feel they really can’t count on the other one experience earlier memory decline. 


Relationships Take Work

Relationships are messy, and they’re complicated, and sometimes it’s hard work to tend to family and friends.  Building and maintaining relationships is a lifelong process and never ends. The people in the 75-year study who were the happiest in retirement were the people who had actively worked to replace workmates with new playmates. 

Just like the millennials in that recent survey, many of the men when they were starting out as young adults really believed that fame, wealth, and high achievement were what they needed to go after to have a good life. Over the 75 years, the study has shown that the people who fared the best were the people who leaned into relationships, with family, friends, and community. A happy life is built with good relationships.


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