how can one be happier and healthier
In 1938 during the Great Depression, Harvard University began what is later known as one of the world’s longest studies of adult life. The goal was to understand how can one be happier and healthier. Over nearly 80 years, the study has tracked the physical and emotional health of two groups:
- 456 poor people in Boston from 1939 to 2014 (the Grant Study)
- 268 graduates from Harvard’s classes of 1939–1944 (the Glueck study)
The scientists followed these groups and did all sorts of test on them. Blood was drawn for testing. Their organs and tissues in their bodies were studied. Their brain activity was examined through electroencephalograms. Their handwriting was also analysed. During the intervening decades, the study eventually opted to include the men’s wives and their offspring.
Here’s the conclusion
So what have we learned? What are the lessons that come from the tens of thousands of pages of information that we’ve generated on these lives? Well, the lessons aren’t about wealth or fame or working harder and harder. The clearest message that we get from this 75-year study is this: Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period – Robert Waldinger, director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development
The study was spearheaded by a Harvard psychiatrist, Robert Waldinger who’s also the fourth director of the study since its inception. In his popular TED Talk, which has garnered more than 20 million views, Robert Waldinger explains the three lessons the scientists learned.
First lesson: Social connections are really good for us
The first is that social connections are really good for us, and that loneliness kills. It turns out that people who are more socially connected to family, to friends, to community, are happier, they’re physically healthier, and they live longer than people who are less well connected. And the experience of loneliness turns out to be toxic.
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. And the sad fact is that at any given time, more than one in five Americans will report that they’re lonely.
Second lesson: The quality of your close relationships that matters
So the second big lesson that we learned is that it’s not just the number of friends you have, and it’s not whether or not you’re in a committed relationship, but it’s the quality of your close relationships that matters.
It turns out that living in the midst of conflict is really bad for our health. High-conflict marriages, for example, without much affection, turn out to be very bad for our health, perhaps worse than getting divorced. And living in the midst of good, warm relationships is protective.
Third lesson: Good relationships don’t just protect our bodies, they protect our brains
And the third big lesson that we learned about relationships and our health is that good relationships don’t just protect our bodies, they protect our brains. It turns out that being in a securely attached relationship to another person in your 80s is protective, that the people who are in relationships where they really feel they can count on the other person in times of need, those people’s memories stay sharper longer.
And the people in relationships where they feel they really can’t count on the other one, those are the people who experience earlier memory decline. And those good relationships, they don’t have to be smooth all the time. Some of our octogenarian couples could bicker with each other day in and day out, but 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.