February 18, 2019

What a 75+ Year Old Harvard Study Reveals About What Makes People Happy and Healthy [Hint: It’s Not Money, Fame or Power]

What Makes a Good Life

It was a research project that no one really expected to last so long, but it did.

For over 75 years, the Harvard Study of Adult Development has studied the lives of 724 men to understand what keeps people healthy and happy.

Since 1938, the researchers have been tracking the lives of two groups of men - one group was sophomores at Harvard College and the second one was a group of boys from one of Boston's most troubled and poorest neighborhoods. 

When these participants entered into the study, they were interviewed along with their parents and given medical exams. 

As these teenagers grew into adults, they took up different occupations ranging from factory workers and bricklayers to doctors and lawyers and one even went on to become the President of the United States.

Not surprisingly, during the course of their life, some participants climbed up the social ladder from the bottom to the top while others went down.

To understand the participants lives in-depth, the researchers didn't just send them questionnaires every two years, but they also interviewed them in their living rooms, obtained their medical records, drew their blood, scanned their brains and interviewed their wives and children.

Here's the interesting takeaway from the study.

The keys to a happy and healthy life isn't about wealth or fame or working harder. It's about having good relationships.

Specifically, here are 3 keys.

  • The first key takeaway is that the more socially connected we are to our family, friends and community, the better off we are and being lonely is toxic.
  • The second takeaway is that it's the quality of your closest relationships that matter more than the quantity - the number of friends you have.
  • The third takeaway is that good relationships aren't just good for our bodies, they are good for our brains too. In other words, those participants who felt they could count on other people in times of need had memories that stayed sharper for a longer period of time while those who felt otherwise experienced faster memory decline.

On one level, the results aren't that surprising or eye-opening, but if we were to ask an average person on the street what's the key to happy and healthy life, I bet they are more likely to say money, fame or power. This isn't to say money isn't important to happiness- it certainly has it's place, but it isn't as important as we usually think it is.

We are probably more likely to believe that winning a lottery is the single, best thing that can happen to our lives, despite research showing that lottery winners are NOT likely to be significantly happier in the long term.

As an introvert, I mostly enjoy spending time alone or with my wife (and now the latest addition to my family - my son). I am socially awkward (note: trying hard to change the labels, I give myself but this is work in progress) and struggle making friends. In fact, I haven't made real friends ever since I graduated out of college, they have only been acquaintances.

I did a pretty good job of keeping in touch with my 3 of my closest friends until I stopped contacting them when I was depressed.

At a time, I needed my friends the most, I stopped keeping in touch with them because I didn't want to burden them and so I withdrew making my problems worse with no help or moral support.

Later, when my friends knew about my depression, they were shocked and mad at me - because I thought I would be dumping my problems on them.

One of my best friends said,

"What's the point of being a friend when we can't be for each other? You shouldn't have hidden your depression from me. You should have called me, talked to me and shared what you were going through. Maybe you never considered me a close friend in the first place..."

The last sentence really hurt me because I dearly adore her but she was spot on. I wasn't willing to be vulnerable and I didn't feel comfortable taking off my mask or letting my guard down even to my friends.

This is something I am working towards - taking time to reconnect with my friends and family members. I have started putting reminders in my calendar to call them on a regular basis. At first, I frowned upon the idea because scheduling calls feels forced rather than a genuine gesture of love. But I realized that when I didn't have these reminders, months and sometimes years would pass by before I made the call and that long a time period can make or break relationships.

Additionally, the long years of depression had made me comfortable being lonely and isolated and I had to break this bad habit by doing things intentionally and NOT waiting for me to have the right feelings.

Here's the Ted Talk on 'What Makes a Good Life' by Robert Waldinger.

Mind Mastery Lab