75 Year Study Reveals a Lifetime of Happiness

Male friends experiencing happiness by playing music
September 4, 2018
Lily Moran

Can money buy a lifetime of happiness? What about living in a big, beautiful house, or driving the coolest car on the block? Can fame do it? How about taking exotic vacations, or pursuing a rewarding career?

Sure, all of those things could probably give you a certain amount of happiness. They may even make you feel successful, important, and fulfilled. But none of these things or accomplishments can give you true happiness.

What can? Meaningful, loving relationships throughout your life.

Now, before you roll your eyes, read on…

This has actually been proven with a 75-year study. 75 years! Rarely do clinical trials exceed a few years—a decade at most—of data collection before the findings are published. But this study has been following the same group of people for three-quarters of a century to gather some pretty amazing information on the importance of happiness.

This study, called the Harvard Study of Adult Development, consists of two groups of men who were recruited in the 1930s and 1940s.

The first group included 268 Caucasian men who were chosen when they were 19 years old. All of them graduated from Harvard University between 1939-1944. (Fun fact: One of the participants in this group was none other than President John F. Kennedy!)

The second group was comprised of 456 Caucasian men between the ages of 11-16 who lived in various disadvantaged neighborhoods in Boston.

The men all had complete physical exams at the start of the study. Then every two years, both groups completed questionnaires about their physical and mental health, marital quality, enjoyment of career or retirement, and many other aspects of their lives.

Every five years, the researchers collected physical health information from the men and their doctors. Finally, every five to 10 years, many of the men from both groups took part in interviews that delved deeper into their relationships, careers, and how they were adjusting to aging.

Decades of data were compiled and analyzed. And while most of the men have since died, 60 are still alive—and researchers are continuing to follow and learn from them. But it doesn’t end there. Many children of the original participants—almost 2,000 of them (all of whom are Baby Boomers)—are involved in Part 2 of this study, known as the Second Generation Study. This unique follow-up will investigate how these kids’ early-life experiences—happy, sad, traumatic, etc.—affected their overall health and aging process. Those results are decades away…so back to what they learned from the first-generation participants…

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Quality Relationships Mean Everything

Researchers concluded that by and large, close, loving relationships keep us not only happier but healthier in the long run.

Furthermore, it’s not about the quantity of relationships we have over our lifetime. What’s most important is quality and depth of the relationships we cultivate, even if it’s only a few really good ones over many decades of life.

One of the researchers even went so far as to say that strong relationships are as important as lifestyle factors such as healthy diet and avoiding cigarettes when it comes to long-term health.

Why?

Well, it turns out that long-term loneliness is toxic to the body. And the chronic stress of isolation and unhappiness causes the body to break down over time. In the study, those who were lonely early in life ended up far less healthy in midlife, with far worse brain function, than those who had close bonds. Even more amazing, the men who reported being most satisfied with their relationships at age 50 were the healthiest at age 80.

While this is the longest running study to show a definitive link between relationships and health and longevity, it’s not the only one.

One meta-analysis that looked at 148 studies (almost 309,000 participants) found that those who had stronger social relationships had a 50 percent higher likelihood of living longer.

How to Cultivate Strong Relationships

In this day and age, it’s easy to say we have solid relationships, all the while referring to people we’ve met once and correspond with through various social media channels. It’s also common to believe we’ve spent the whole day or weekend with loved ones—yet most of that time was in front of the TV or staring at electronics.

This is surely not the way to develop strong connections. Strive to replace screen time and FaceTime with actual face time. Both talking and touching help build deep bonds. And it still counts if you’re doing something else, like playing golf, knitting, or working on a car as you talk.

Every day, strive to nurture and improve the bonds you have with your spouse, kids, and closest friends in the most intimate way possible—through the lost art of real-time conversation.

At the same time, say goodbye to the negative people in your life who do nothing but drag you down. You don’t want to waste your time and energy on anyone who could be toxic to your health. Instead, focus that energy on those who really matter to you. In the end, you’ll end up healthier, truly happier, and living a longer, richer life than you ever could have imagined.

References

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