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What is a happy life?

Updated: Jul 22, 2023

The Harvard Study of Adult Development started the longest run study on happiness almost 100 years ago. Its aim was to research happiness, overall well-being and its impact on health over the life-span.

Original participants included future president John F Kennedy and 267 other Harvard students. The year was 1938 and it is still an ongoing. Over the last century, it expanded to the student’s children and 456 Boston inner-city men. Women were also (eventually) added.

The study collected an enormous amount of valuable information and the second generation are now in their 50s and 60s. Throughout the decades, the researchers examined their health, relationships, and other stressors. According to the Harvard Gazette, some of the participants were very successful in their professional lives. Others developed schizophrenia and serious addictions.

The results? Regardless of income or importance, positive relationships were the single most important factor to a happy life. In fact, relationships reigned supreme over genetics, socioeconomic status, and intelligence.

Marriages, friendships, a sense of belonging. Whether that be with your spouse, friends, or community. In fact, the director of the current study Robert Waldinger states the individuals who reported satisfaction in relationships when they were 50 years old were the healthiest subjects when turning 80 years old.

Quality time over quantity proved to also be important. The feeling of loneliness (regardless of relationship status) impacts our health in major ways. Waldinger states loneliness seems to activate our fight and flight system which essentially causes chronic stress and inflammation. A systemic review on loneliness performed by Lam et al point out it correlates with increased mental health issues, dementia, and cardiovascular morbidities.

So how do we combat this loneliness adversity? The century-old study gives us clues. Director Waldinger points out a "good life” is “being engaged in activities I care about with people I care about”.

Relationships help with happiness, but also assist with enduring difficult times. Remember, the study was ongoing in The Great Depression and World War II. During difficult economic times, individuals who embraced community and shared with others allowed them to persevere. Also, soldiers reported their comrades and letters from loved ones helped them press on.

I like Waldinger’s idea of “social fitness”. Like many things in life, exercise comes into play. Social bonds can atrophy if we do not exercise them regularly. So how can we strengthen them? It does not have to take much time. For example, text a friend or schedule a time to get together. Even smiling to someone you see regularly on a walk can help.

For more details on this study:

What ideas do you have for social connection? Make a mental note to do it today! Or mark it in your calendar for a near future date.

Check out my podcast episode next week for more details on social connections as well practical ideas to have fun with your family!

Thanks for taking the time to read! What are your thoughts? Let me know at:

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