The Secret to a Good Life According to the Longest Happiness Study Ever

You didn't think that true satisfaction was determined by your social-media following and bank account, did you? Well, you're right. According to the 75-year-long Harvard Study of Adult Development, the most important predictor of true happiness and well-being is the right kind of relationships with family, friends and spouses.

Fostering and maintaining strong relationships helps protect against chronic disease, mental illness and memory decline. (Image: ruslanshramko/iStock/Getty Images)

Study director Dr. Robert Waldinger — who also happens to be a Zen priest and professor of psychiatry at Harvard — explains his team’s findings: “The clearest message that we get from this 75-year study is this: Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period.” In a TED Talk from last 2016, Waldinger noted that fostering and maintaining strong relationships helped protect against mental illness, chronic disease and memory decline.

According to Waldinger, “The chronic stress of being lonely, of being unhappy, gets into the body and breaks it down over time.” But the secret to well-being isn’t constantly surrounding yourself with people and locking down a romantic partner. The truth is, you can be lonely in a crowd as well as in a romantic partnership in which you and your partner are emotionally distant. “It’s not the number of relationships, but the quality and depth of relationships that matters,” Waldinger explains.

So we know strong relationships lead to health and happiness, but how do we cultivate those quality relationships? “Giving people our full, undivided attention is one of the most important things we have to offer,” says Waldinger. That means disconnecting from your electronic devices when you’re in the presence of your friends and family and prioritizing interpersonal relationships over money and notoriety.

But just how in-depth is the Harvard Study of Adult Development? The Grant and Glueck study followed 724 men for three-quarters of a decade to identify the psychosocial predictors of healthy aging. The study tracked two very different groups: 456 men from inner-city Boston and 268 Harvard grads, including president John F. Kennedy. The researchers collected blood samples, conducted brain scans and analyzed self-reported surveys and actual interactions with the participants.

The Harvard researchers are now beginning to study the children of the men and women in the Grant and Glueck study. According to the Second Generation Study website: “Our new project aims to study the effect of childhood experiences on midlife health. We aim to use our rich data set to create a detailed model of how early events help shape our well-being in midlife.” We’ll have to wait to find out if our childhoods shape who we are and how happy we are as adults.

—Erin Mosbaugh

Erin has made telling stories about food her profession. You can find those stories in Food & Wine, LA Weekly, Serious Eats, KCET, Robb Report and First We Feast.

What Do YOU Think?

Do you prioritize relationships over work? Do you value being with people in the moment over social media? Do you believe strong, thoughtful relationships lead to true happiness?

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