What the Longest Study on Happiness Reveals About Building a Fulfilling Life

Most of us have an idea about what would make us happier: more free time, more money, more popularity. Robert Waldinger, a Harvard researcher, reveals that the key to a happy life might be right in front of us.

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We’re constantly being fed images of things that are supposed to make us happier and our lives fuller. A recent survey of millennials asking them what their most important life goals were, shows that over 80 percent said that getting rich was a major life goal. And another 50 percent of those same young adults said that another major life goal was to become famous. This belief influences how we move through life; we push ourselves harder at work, pressure ourselves to achieve more, and continuously chase after things we believe will make us happy.

Most of what we know about shaping a happy life is from asking people to remember the past, however, hindsight is anything but 20/20. We forget some of life’s key lessons in the vast number of memories we might have acquired throughout the years. To combat this, Harvard University ran the longest study of adult life that’s ever been done. The Harvard Study of Adult Development tracked the lives of 724 men for more than 75 years, asking about their work, their home lives, and their health. Here’s what they found out about what really keeps people happy and healthy.

What Makes a Good Life? Lessons From the Longest Study on Happiness


1. Social connections are good for us, and loneliness kills. It turns out people who are more socially connected to family, to friends, to the community are happier, they’re physically healthier, and they 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, Dr. Waldinger explains.

2. Keeping your close relationships, closer. It’s not the number of close friends you have, or whether or not you’re in a committed relationship, but the quality of your close relationships that matter. Living in the midst of conflict is bad for your health. High-conflict marriages without much affection, according to Dr. Waldinger, are perhaps worse than getting divorced. And living in the midst of good, warm relationships is protective.

3. Good relationships don’t just affect our bodies, they protect our brains. The same study also showed that being in a securely attached relationship to another person in your 80s is protective, that the people who are in relationships where they feel they can count on the other person in times of need, those people’s memories stay sharper and longer.

From this study, we know that nurturing close relationships is good for our health and well-being. Why is this so hard to get and so easy to ignore? We’re human, we’d like a quick fix, something we can get that’ll make our lives good and keep them that way. Relationships are messy, complicated, and require a lot of hard work. But they are also extremely rewarding. 

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