Scientifically Proven Key To Health & Happiness

It’s life’s big, magic, ultimate question really…

How can we live longer and stay happy?

As it turns out there’s a definitive, scientifically proven answer to that question. And it’s a pretty simple one: relationships are the key.

Our culture teaches us that a ‘good life’ is the result of working hard and achieving a lot – we call it success. So we throw ourselves at the grindstone in mass numbers, like lemmings blindly diving off a cliff, telling ourselves “I’ll be happy when…”

But that when never really arrives because the next one comes along. And the next. And the next.

Until we’ve arrived in middle or old age, wondering where the time went and why we aren’t happy despite the collection of stuff we now have and the multitude of things we’ve achieved. Most of what we know about the sum of a whole, happy life is gleaned from asking people to remember the past.

Until recently that is.

A landmark study conducted by Harvard University has spent over 70 years tracking the lives of 724 participants from their teen years into old age to see what really keeps people happy and healthy. It’s one of the longest studies that has ever been done on normal adult development.

Research like this is a treasure trove of information on how people behave and we’d have to be insane to ignore the results. It’s incredibly rare for such a study to last so long – over the decades participants drop out, funding dries up and researchers pass on without others following up.

Here’s what the study looked like…

The Harvard Study of Normal Adult Development has been tracking two groups of white men since 1938.

Group one was 268 men who began in the study as Harvard sophomores. They finished college during World War 2 and most of them went off to serve in the war.

Group two was 456 inner city Boston boys who began the study between ages 12-16. These boys were selected from the poorest neighbourhoods and were specifically chosen from some of the most troubled families of 1930’s Boston. They went on to become a broad range of professionals – factory workers, lawyers, bricklayers, doctors and even a president of the United States of America. Some developed alcoholism and schizophrenia, while others climbed from the very bottom of the social ladder right to the top.

The researchers surveyed the men about their lives every two years and monitored their physical health every five years. Questionnaires were answered, interviews conducted, X-rays, blood and brain scans taken, children spoken with and wives included. Participants were even filmed talking with their wives about their deepest concerns.

Nearly twenty of the original participants are still alive (now in their 90’s) and Harvard is beginning to study their children (almost 1500 of them).

So, what did the study find?

Quite a lot actually. There’s tens of thousands of pages of data, much of which is yet to be fully explored.

Let’s take a look at the major lessons as presented by Robert Waldinger, current director of the study, a psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital, and an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

Waldinger distilled the lessons of the study into three major lessons in a 2015 Ted Talk that’s since had over 16 million views.

You can watch the video here 


The clearest message from decades of data is that good relationships keep us happier and healthier.


Here are the three major lessons Waldinger shared in his Ted Talk…


Lesson One

According to Waldinger, social connections are very good for us. He shares how people who are more connected are happier, physically healthier and live longer than those who are not.

On the flip side, the experience of loneliness is actually toxic. People who are isolated are less happy, their health and brain function declines sooner and they live shorter lives. “Loneliness kills”, Waldinger says, “it’s as powerful as smoking or alcoholism.”


Lesson Two

It is not the number of friends you have that’s important – the real key is the quality of your close personal relationships. Warm, supportive relationships protect our health and happiness long term.


Living in conflict is especially bad for our health. Waldinger identified ‘high conflict marriages’ as worse for long term health and happiness than divorce.

Waldinger speaks about using the data to attempt to predict how participants in their mid-life would fare as octogenarians. “When we gathered together everything we knew about them about at age 50, it wasn’t their middle-age cholesterol levels that predicted how they were going to grow old,” said Waldinger. “It was how satisfied they were in their relationships. The people who were the most satisfied in their relationships at age 50 were the healthiest at age 80.”

So high quality personal relationships buffer us from the issues we face as a part of the natural ageing process. Waldinger goes on to share that “…people who had happy marriages in their 80s reported that their moods didn’t suffer even on the days when they had more physical pain. Those who had unhappy marriages felt both more emotional and physical pain.”

The research also debunked the idea that people’s personalities are set like plaster by age 30 and cannot be changed. Prior study Director and psychiatrist George Vaillant says, “Those who were clearly train wrecks when they were in their 20s or 25s turned out to be wonderful octogenarians,” he said. “On the other hand, alcoholism and major depression could take people who started life as stars and leave them at the end of their lives as train wrecks.”


Lesson Three

Good relationships also protect our brains. Being in the type of relationship where couples can truly count on one another results in memory staying sharper for longer. The people who don’t feel they can count on their partners lose memory earlier.


Waldinger adds, “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.”

The bottom line: get the care and maintenance of your close personal relationships at the top of your to do list and keep it there. Science has proven that doing so will ensure long term health and happiness.

In truth, this is old wisdom. It’s not a new idea. It’s not complicated.

So why is it so difficult to get?

Waldinger has the answer to that too…

“Because we’re human. We want the easy answer – the quick fix we can just go and get. Relationships are messy and they’re life long hard work.”

Clearly it’s worth the effort.

“Society places a lot of emphasis on wealth and ‘leaning in’ to our work”, Waldinger said. “But over and over, over these 75 years, our study has shown that the people who fared the best were the people who leaned in to relationships – with family, with friends, with community.”

So today, this week, this month, this year and next…get off your computer or phone and put in some face time with a friend. Start a new activity with someone you love. Reach out to the family member you haven’t spoken to in a while. Take long walks with your partner. Play with your kids. Phone your mum.

In the long run, you’ll be glad you did. Get into it, right now.


For more information on the Harvard Study of Normal Adult Development click here