3 lessons on living a good life from an 80-year long Harvard study on happiness and wellbeing

Jared Talavera 

Whilst things like eating well and regular physical activity are important, the quality but not necessarily the quantity of the people in your life also contribute significantly to your health.

couple_embracing
Photo credit: Nathan McBride

A study on Millennials asked what their most important life goals were. More than 80 percent said that a major life goal was to become rich and within that same group 50 percent wanted to become famous.

These are misconceptions of what it means to live a good life.

What would it be like if there was a study that involved people from the time they were teenagers to old age and see what really makes them happy and healthy?

Psychiatrist Dr. Robert Waldinger is the fourth director of the 80-year long Harvard Study of Adult Development. 

 

rober_waldinger_md
Photo credit: Robert Waldinger

Studies this long are rare. Usually people drop out of studies, funding clears up or the researchers decide not to continue.

The study began in 1938 and tracked the lives of 724 men in Boston. Researchers followed up with them on an annual basis to ask about work, home life and health.

The researchers wanted to explore the psychological and biological factors from childhood that predict health and wellbeing in later life.

The participants came from two groups: 268 sophomores at Harvard College from the Grant Study and 456 delinquent boys aged 12-16 from the poorest neighbourhoods of Boston as part of the Glueck Study at the Harvard Law School.

Among the original Harvard College cohort were Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee and former President John F. Kennedy. Women were not recruited into the study since the College at the time only accepted males andin the inner-city Boston area only the boys were delinquents involved with the law. 

“We [the researchers] think of ourselves not as proving anything about how people are and how they develop, but is simply generating hypotheses that then have to be tested with women and has to be tested in other ethnic groups and other countries,” says Waldinger.

Many decades later Waldinger expanded the study to include the wives and children of the original men.  

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Photo credit: Jonathan Daniels

Currently there are approximately 60 of the 724 men still alive today with most of them in their 90s.

According to the longest running study on adult health and wellbeing, there was one major finding that stood out which was—good supportive people keep us healthier and happier.

In a 2015 TED Talk, Waldinger says, “Our study has shown that the people who fared the best were the people who leaned into relationships, with family, with friends, with community,”

Tweet: “The good life is built with good relationships” – Dr. Robert Waldinger, Director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development

There are three key lessons from the study on living a healthy, happy and meaningful life.

1. Social connections are good for you.

The more socially connected a person is to their family, friends and community the happier and physically healthier they are which is correlated with living longer.

Those who were happiest in retirement were those who replaced workmates with new friends.

2. Quality over quantity

According to Waldinger, it’s not about the number of people you have in your life but “the quality of your close relationships that matters.” 

men_high_five
Photo credit: Tyler Nix

Quality of relationships are somewhat dependent on age. A 2015 study published in the scientific journal Psychology and Ageing found that for people in their 20s the number of relationships they had was important to them. However, when people reached their 30s the quality of relationships mattered more since it had a significant effect on social and psychological wellbeing.

Conflict in relationships can be detrimental to health. “High-conflict marriages, for example, without much affection, turn out to be very bad for our health, perhaps worse than getting divorced,” says Waldinger.

On the other hand, warm, close and supportive relationships buffer against stress and build resilience.

couple_embrace
Models: Morgan and Zane Kaiser. Photo credit: Brooke Cagle

In the study, people who were most satisfied in their relationships at age 50 were the healthiest at age 80.

Men and women in their 80s who were in happy relationships reported that on days when they had physical pain, their mood remained happy. However, for those in unhappy relationships their physical pain was magnified by emotional pain.

3. Good relationships protect the brain

Having people you could rely on guards against age-related mental decline. Those in the study who were in relationships in which they could count on their partner during difficult times had sharper memory. Those who did not were more likely to experience memory decline.

Waldinger explains the finding by, “As long as they felt that they could really count on the other when the going got tough, those arguments didn’t take a toll on their memories,”

The question now becomes “How do you lean into relationships?”

In Waldinger’s 2015 Ted Talk, he offers three recommendations:

  • Replace screen time with real in-person FaceTime
  • Doing something new as a couple 
  • Scheduling date nights.  
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Ally Searles. Photo credit: Clay Banks

Whilst social media, phone calls and text messages can be a great way to stay connected with people, catching up in person is even better.

Social media fitness influencer John David Glaude is the host of the YouTube channel Obese to Beast. 

In high school he tried out for the football team and he remembers being “the biggest guy” there.  

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Photo credit: Riley McCullough

During his try out he had to squat 135lb (61.23kg). Up until that point John had never lifted weights before. 

One of the players on the team came up to him and said, “You’re the biggest guy here and you can’t even lift that? Why are you that big? What are you even used for?”

He left that practice session and walked home. He never got to play high school football.

By the time he graduated high school he was 300lb (136.08kg). The only time John would ever leave the house was when he needed to go to work or play drums for a gig.

At 20-years old he was terrified to be home alone. John realized that if he was at home by himself and had a heart attack there would be no one to immediately come to his rescue.

At the rate that he was gaining weight each year he felt like there was nothing he could do. He got to a point at his heaviest (360lb or 163.29kg) where he just accepted that he had to be okay with dying before 40.

He then discovered CrossFit. 

“I just like fell in love with it. Crossfit has that community aspect, you are doing the same workout as all these other people, you’re suffering together, and it makes the gym less like an isolated thing.

crossfit_gym
Photo credit: Victor Freitas

Going to the CrossFit gym and seeing his friends there “felt like family.” 

“Before. the future for me, I didn’t like thinking about it. Now I’m excited about where I’ll be in a year, two years, in five years. So excited!”

You’re not rich until you have something money cannot buy. Fame and money are only band-aids for happiness. Good relationships are priceless but take time to cultivate. 

The reward you receive is a life of health, happiness and fulfilment. As Waldinger says, ”Relationships are messy and they’re complicated. The hard work of tending to family and friends, it’s not sexy or glamorous. It’s lifelong.”

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If you loved this article I encourage you to share this with a friend, colleague, or family member who you think would find enormous value from this as well.

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Afterthoughts

Is there a friend, family member, colleague or romantic partner you have always been meaning to have more deep and meaningful conversations with in-person but have not got around to doing that?

Schedule a time to catch up with that person within the following week.

You can connect with me on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Please feel free to leave a comment. Your email will be kept private.

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