What makes a happy life? In some way, this feels like one of the most important questions a person can ask.
To look for answers, researchers from Harvard University have been following two very different groups of men for more than 80 years—268 Harvard graduates and 456 men who grew up in inner-city Boston. This is the longest-running study ever of human life. Researchers were particularly interested in the social and psychological factors that impact health and well-being later in life.
This year, the current study directors—Harvard Professor Robert Waldinger and Bryn Mawr Professor Marc Schulz—published a book, The Good Life: Lessons From the World’s Longest Scientific Study of Happinessto share what they’ve learned.
The biggest take-home message: Study participants who were happiest, stayed the healthiest, and lived the longest had the strongest and warmest relationships. Since then, other studies have come to similar conclusions. People with strong relationships are less likely to develop chronic diseases, mental illness and memory decline. The study also found that the quality of men’s relationships at age 47 predicted how they would adjust to the stress of aging decades later.
While researchers aren’t sure about the reasons for these outcomes, the strongest hypothesis to date involves stress, Waldinger said. That’s because when we’re faced with stress, our bodies have a fight-or-flight response which leads to increased heart rate and blood pressure, along with other physiological changes.
If our bodies don’t recover from this fight-or-flight reaction, we experience chronic stress. This occurs when stress hormones continue to circulate in the body, leading to prolonged physical changes that ultimately result in inflammation and chronic disease.
“When we have a connection with somebody that’s warm, often what happens is that it allows our bodies to calm down,” Waldinger explained in an episode of Harvard Medicine’s “The Written Word.”1
“Let me give you an example,” he said. “Something happened in my day that’s upsetting and I’m worried about it and I think about it all day. If I go home at night and I have someone at home or someone I can call on the phone and I can talk to them about my upsetting day, I can literally feel my body calm down. And that’s the process we think happens when relationships have this stress-relieving function. Social isolation and loneliness leave us without that resource, and that means they leave us potentially in a state of chronic stress.”
In addition to life satisfaction and physical health, the study also found that relationships also helped to determine participants’ financial success. Having warm relationships is more likely to predict financial success than cognitive intelligence; participants with the warmest relationships earned significantly more during their peak earning years compared to participants with lower scores.
There were other take-home messages from the study:
- The single most important action participants took to ensure their health later in life was to avoid smoking. The study began in the 1930s before the harms of smoking were widely recognized. Participants who avoided smoking or quit earlier experienced greater levels of health later in life.
- Alcohol use was associated with much higher divorce rates for men. Of the divorced men in the study, 57 percent attributed their divorce to alcohol use. In addition, alcohol abuse often preceded depression—not the other way around.
- All types of relationships are important for health and well-being, including romantic partners, close friends, relatives and co-workers. The happiest, healthiest people in their later years reported having different kinds of strong relationships.
The evidence from this study reveals important steps to improve your health and wellness: First and foremost, investing time and energy into your relationships is important. Instead of scrolling through social media, make a phone call to connect with an old friend or distant family member.
The take-home message: The key to a happy, fulfilling life—especially as you age—is to nurture strong relationships.