What Makes a Good Life? Lessons from Harvard’s 75 year study on happiness

“What keeps us healthy and happy as we go through life?”

In a recent survey, 80% of millennials say that their major life goal is to get rich and another 50% said it’s to get famous.

We are constantly told that we need to work more and work harder to have a good life. Most of what we know is retrospective – asking people to look back on their lives. But we know that memory can be pretty creative and not very reliable.

So what if we could track people’s lives from the time they are teens through late in their lives to get a sense of what really keeps us happy and healthy?

The Harvard Study of Adult Development did exactly that. For 75 years, it tracked the lives of 724 men asking about their careers and what makes them happy, year after year. Most studies of this magnitude do not survive due to funding, and researchers either retiring or moving on to other projects.

This one did. And about 60 of the participants are still alive and still part of this study that is currently led by Robert Waldinger.

The study tracked two different groups of men. One was from the poorest and most disadvantaged families in Boston. The other group began as freshmen at Harvard College.

Over the course of their lives, these men went on to become bricklayers and lawyers and one the President of the United States. Some developed alcoholism, others schizophrenia. A few of the men climbed the social ladder to its highest rungs, others went the other direction.

To get the clearest picture of these men’s lives, the researchers scan their brains, talk to their children, get their medical records, and talk to the men in their living rooms. They are videotaped talking to their wives about their deepest concerns.

It turns out that the lessons learned from this work aren’t about wealth, or fame, or working harder and harder. The clearest lesson we’ve learned from 75 years in this study is this:

“Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period.”

We’ve learned three important things from this study about relationships:

  1. Social connections are really good for us and loneliness kills. People who are more socially connected are happier, healthier, and live longer. Loneliness, meanwhile, is toxic. People who are isolated from others more than they want to be find that they are less happy, health declines earlier, and they do not live as long. Unfortunately more than 1 in 5 Americans report at some point in their lives that they are lonely.
  2. It is the quality of our relationships that matters. Living in the midst of a bad relationship has negative effects on our health. High-conflict marriages for example, are very bad on our health, perhaps even worse than getting divorced. Living in warm relationships has protective benefits on our health. Middle age cholesterol levels did not predict whether or not one of the men would become a healthy octogenarian. People who were the most satisfied with their relationships at 50, were the healthiest at age 80.
  3. Good relationships don’t just protect our bodies, they protect our brains. Being in a securely attached relationship in your 80s, those people’s memories stay sharper longer. It doesn’t mean the relationship was smooth all the time, it was that they knew they could really call on their partner in a time of need.

So why is this so hard? We want a quick fix. Relationships are messy and complicated and hard work. Not very sexy or glamorous. It’s also lifelong. People in their 70s who were the happiest had worked hard to replace workmates with playmates after retirement.

So what about you?

There isn't time.jpg

The good life is built with good relationships.

[This blog is a summary of a terrific Ted talk by Dr. Robert Waldinger titled: “What makes a good life? Lessons from the longest study on happiness”, and the quotes are taken directly from him. Check it out here: http://go.ted.com/CmnD]

Jeremi McManus, MFT Psychotherapy and Couples CounselingJeremi McManus  is a Relationship Therapist, Couples Therapist, and Author who works with people who want more fulfilling and satisfying relationships. His own ups and downs in dating and relating were instrumental in leading him into this field. If you feel like you could use some perspective, he looks forward to hearing from you. Jeremi is a Licensed Psychotherapist and delighted to call San Francisco home.


About Jeremi McManus

I am a licensed psychotherapist offering individual psychotherapy and couples counseling in San Francisco. If you are looking for some therapy to address challenges in your life or to address challenges in your relationship, I welcome hearing from you at (415) 375-0311. Specialties: - Relationship Counseling - Psychotherapy - Communication issues - Couples Counseling - Dating and relationship challenges Jeremi McManus, MFT Psychotherapy San Francisco and Couples Counseling San Francisco
This entry was posted in Dating, Mindfulness, Psychotherapy, Relationship Coaching, Uncategorized, Yoga. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to What Makes a Good Life? Lessons from Harvard’s 75 year study on happiness

  1. John says:

    Thanks for the article, buddy.

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