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The secret to a happy life is not so secret

March 31, 2016

“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? We did that.”  

Dr. Robert Waldinger, Clinical Psychology Professor at Harvard University, made this incredible announcement at a TEDxBeaconStreet talk in November 2015. How does he claim to know what keeps people happy and healthy? Waldinger is the Director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development – maybe the longest study of adult life that’s ever been undertaken. Beginning in 1938, the study has continuously tracked the emotional and physical growth of 724 men and the results have revealed a common thread weaving throughout the lives of the participants.  

For 75 years, Harvard has focused the scope of its research for the study on individuals selected from two different groups back in the 1930s. The first group of participants began the study as Harvard University sophomores, and then served in WWII after graduating. The second group was a made up of young boys from a poor, socio-economically unstable neighbourhood in Boston. All individuals from both groups set out on different life paths, with varying careers and dispositions. One even became President of the United States. The study is incredibly comprehensive. Not only do they check up on their participants each year and ask in-depth questions, but Waldinger details the intensive process for the researchers, explaining, “we interview them in their living rooms, we get their medical records from their doctors, we draw their blood, we scan their brains, we talk to their children, we videotape them talking to their wives about their deepest concerns.”

After 75 years of collecting data, what has the study concluded about the lives of these individuals and the human race, in general? “Good relationships keep us happier and healthier, period.”

The mission of is to disseminate news and information about the importance of relationship building and human connection — and the consequences associated with social isolation. Waldinger explains that through this long-term study, they have learned three important lessons. “The first is that social connections are really good for us, and that loneliness kills.” Waldinger’s team found that people who are more socially connected are happier and physically healthier, and people who are more isolated live shorter lives overall.

It’s also not about the number of relationships, but rather the quality of them that contributes to a person’s happiness, which is the second lesson learned in the study. Living a happy, healthy life is a result of surrounding yourself with positive connections and minimal conflict. Waldinger reveals that, “high conflict marriages, for example, without much affection turn out to be very bad for our health, perhaps worse than getting a divorce.” After delving into the lives of 724 men, his team recognized that the individuals who were most content in their relationships at age 50 were, perhaps unsurprisingly, the healthiest at the age of 80.

The third big conclusion that was reached regarding social connection and health was that good, close relationships protect our brains. Waldinger explains, “It turns out that being in a securely attached relationship in our 80s is protective… those people’s memories stay sharper longer. And the people in relationships where they feel they really can’t count on the other one, those are the people who experience earlier memory decline.” Our brains are programmed for human connection and positive social interactions – without it, our minds cannot grow or maintain themselves.

This very study solidifies the message that aims to circulate every day: health and happiness are inextricably linked with human connection, social inclusion and repicrocity. The impressive long-term undertaking by Harvard University demonstrates the undeniable advantages of living a connected life.

Watch Dr. Waldinger’s full TEDx Talk, What makes a good life? Lessons from the longest study on happiness.