For decades psychology as a science studied the flaws in human beings. Depression, anxiety and mental illness research and treatment protocols dominated the journals. Looking for causes and treatments, scientists sought to find ways to alleviate suffering for the populace. In spite of all the advances and success, one truth remained: Not being depressed isn’t the same as being happy.
Nonetheless, since 1938 researchers at Harvard have been collecting data about 724 men. The study followed two groups of men for 75 years. Harvard psychiatrist George Vaillant began the study of 268 Harvard sophomores, while law school professor Sheldon Glueck studied 456 12- to 16-year-old boys who grew up in inner city Boston.
Robert Waldinger is now the fourth director of the study and about 60 of the original 724 white men are still alive and participating — most of them in their 90s. Now researchers are looking toward the next generation — studying more than 2,000 children of these men. To date what they have found so far is as simple as it is profound: What keeps us happier and healthier are good relationships.
We were told, we told our children, and our culture reinforces it: To have a happy life we should work harder and achieve more. In a recent study of millennials, over 80 percent listed getting rich as a major life goal. Another 50 percent said it was to become famous. But the Harvard longitudinal study tells us something very different. The biggest life lesson for happiness has nothing to do with these adages. It didn’t matter if you were from a privileged group or the inner-city crowd. It turned out that social connections do wonders for our well-being.
Those more socially connected to family, friends, and their community are happier, physically healthier, and live longer. Conversely, as director Robert Waldinger has said, loneliness kills. It turns out that people who are less socially connected don’t function as well mentally, don’t sleep as well, and are at higher risk for illness and death.
The next thing the study found was that the number of relationships is secondary to the quality. As an example, people in high-conflict marriages with low affection were found to be less happy than unmarried people. Other longitudinal research confirms this. The number of relationships people had in their 20s was important, but in their 30s the quality of relationships had a bigger impact.
Finally, good relationships not only protect our bodies, but our brains as well. Other research has shown that temperament has a direct impact on longevity and well-being. The Harvard study specifically showed that if you really feel you can count on someone in a time of need, your memories stay sharper longer. It doesn’t have to be 24/7 bliss, but if you know you can trust your partner to be there, that makes the difference.
What does this mean in practical terms? Love is a verb. It is putting caring feelings for others in action — beginning with being present with those you care about and investing time with them. The director of the study has said that simple things like doing something new together, having a date night, or taking a walk together can have powerful effects for your health, longevity, and quality of life.
Repairing unhealed relationships in your life also is important. Don’t hold a grudge. Finding ways to loosen the grip of anger or resentment toward someone often means taking action by moving toward the conflict. Sometimes it requires having difficult discussions. As a Buddhist saying goes: Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else — you are the one who gets burned.
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