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75-year Harvard study: what makes us happy?

April 21, 2019 GMT

Okay, are you rolling your eyes? Yet another study claiming to show us the way to happiness, right? This one made me sit up and take notice, though.

After listening to a TED talk from Dr. Robert Waldinger, director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, and following the research, I realized it’s the longest and most comprehensive study of its kind—tracking subjects for 75 years!

Research goals

Consider the questions posed by the original researchers:

What if we could follow people throughout life and document what makes them happy as they go along?

If you were going to invest in your future self, right now, where would you put your time and energy?

Here’s what the researchers set out to do:

• For more than 75 years, the Grant and Glueck study tracked the physical and emotional health of 724 people in two very diverse groups.

• The Grant Study followed 456 people who grew up in Boston’s poorest neighborhoods— many living in tenements— beginning in 1939.

• The Glueck Study followed 268 graduates from Harvard’s classes of 1939-1944.

• The study began when the subjects were teenagers and followed them into their eighties.

Here’s an amazing part of the study. It didn’t just involve annual questionnaires.

Researchers went to participants’ homes and sat in their living rooms. They talked about work, home life and health. They talked with the spouses and children of the subjects, and they reviewed medical records.

The subjects also had blood draws and brain scans over several decades to compare physical factors.

Dr. Waldinger explains how rare this study is. Most projects fall apart after a decade. People drop out of the study— or die in many cases. Or funding dries up.

Research findings

Subjects went into all walks of life—as factory workers, doctors, lawyers and bricklayers. There was even one President of the United States —John F. Kennedy, Jr.

Over time, some developed alcoholism. Some climbed corporate ladders all the way to the top, and some came crashing down in the opposite direction.

The envelope, please

After tens of thousands of pages of documentation—and decades of research—there was one overwhelming conclusion, cited by Dr. Waldinger:

“The clearest message that we get from this 75-year study is this: Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period.”

Are you surprised? This seems like such a simple concept, and it has been validated in other studies as well.

In an article in SCIENCE, authors House, Landi and Umberson made the following observation:

“Social relationships, or the lack thereof, constitute a major risk factor for health —rivaling the effect of well established risk factors such as blood pressure, blood lipids, obesity and physical activity.”

Wow. While I’m not surprised this theory would be supported from the standpoint of emotional health, I was particularly intrigued it trumped many physical aspects.

Although cigarette smoking was noted as a major risk factor, the findings related much more to the advantages of social interaction. In cases of traumatic childhoods, researchers showed that subjects began to heal from these wounds by focusing on their contributions to the next generation. Believing in something bigger than oneself was also cited as an important factor.

Three big lessons

Dr. Waldinger stresses three significant lessons from the study:

1. Loneliness kills. At any given time, one in five Americans report they’re lonely. Isolation is toxic. There are greater physical declines in lonely people, and brain functioning can decline earlier— even in mid-life.

2. It’s the quality of our relationships that matter. “You can be lonely in a crowd or a marriage,” Dr. Waldinger says. “It’s not the number of friends you have; it’s the quality of your close relationships that matters.” Even with bickering couples, it was shown that the ability to count on one another contributed significantly to their sense of stability and well-being.

3. When subjects were studied in their eighties—and researchers went back to their fifties to look for predictable factors for their happiness—it wasn’t their cholesterol levels that played the biggest role. Relationships were again indicated. And those in their eighties with strong relationships were able to stay in better moods, even though they were dealing with physical pain.

Enriching relationships

Gratitude and unconditional love lay the foundation for deep relationships. When the focus is on what you can give, rather than what you can get, the relationship becomes a gift to both of you.

And it results in increased self worth, self confidence and a greater ability to cope with life’ challenges.

While many of the subjects were ambitious and accomplished lots of goals, it’s important to note this energy needs to be channeled effectively beyond the work world. Replacing “workmates” with “playmates”—especially upon retirement—is key, whether that involves recreation, leisure, sports or traveling.

Action steps

Relationships can be messy and complicated. And one thing’s for certain: they’re fluid. It may be time to take stock of your relationships:

• Have you let them slide? Relationships need to be nurtured. Reach out and take a baby step. Make a phone call or send a text or email, explaining that it’s been awhile and you’d like to catch up.

• Do you need to evaluate your relationships? Maybe you’ve just drifted along with the same crowd because it’s easy. Do your friends bring out the best in you? Do you need to create some new and exciting activities with your spouse or partner?

• Is it time to dissolve that grudge with a family member?

• Is your comfort zone becoming too comfortable? Think about getting off your “devices” for awhile and replacing screen time with people time.

While all this requires an investment of time, just think about the return you’re likely to get!

Going back to the original question in the Harvard study:

If you were going to invest in your future self—right now —where would you put your time and energy?

©2019 Linda Arnold Life 101, all rights reserved. Linda Arnold, M.A., M.B.A., is a syndicated columnist, psychological counselor and founder of a multistate marketing company. Reader comments are welcome at linda@lindaarnold.org For information on her books, go to www.lindaarnold.org or Amazon.com.