What Really Makes Us Happy?

how to be happy

It’s an age-old question; what is needed for a happy life? When millennials are asked this question, they often answer “money and personal achievement.” These answers aren’t new. In fact, when more than 724 young men were asked to answer the same question back in the ‘30s, they provided the same response.

Today, thanks to a 75-year-long study on adult life and happiness, we know both generations are wrong. Robert Waldinger, Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, has just finished the most comprehensive, longest-running study on happiness. The study began in 1938. For 75 years, it tracked the lives of two groups of men in 1938: Harvard sophomores who graduated college during WWII, most of whom went on to serve in the war; and a group of teenagers from Boston’s poorest neighborhoods, many from troubled families. (Most lived in tenements, many without hot and cold running water.) Year after year, these men were asked about their work, home life, health and happiness.

To get the clearest picture of these lives, we don't just send them questionnaires. We interview them in their living rooms. We get their medical records from their doctors. We draw their blood, we scan their brains, we talk to their children. We videotape them talking with their wives about their deepest concerns. – Robert Waldinger

What lessons were learned?

Woman in cafe sipping coffee and looking out the window

When the study started, no one knew how these men’s lives would turn out. When it finished, the answer was clear.

Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period. – Robert Waldinger

In his recent TED Talk, Waldinger shared three big lessons he’s learned from this rare, long-running study.

  1. Social connections are healthy. People who have solid social relationships are more content, physically healthier and live longer than those less connected. The participants who experienced lonesomeness were less happy, and both physically and emotionally less healthy than participants who had close relationships throughout their lives.
  2. Relationship quality – not quantity – is important. The number of friends we have isn’t as significant to our happiness as is being in close, supportive relationships. People can be lonely when they are in a crowded room, or in an unsupportive marriage. High-quality, close relationships with friends and family are vital elements to happiness.
  3. Secure, loyal partnerships are protective. Those in the study who were the most satisfied in their relationships at age 50 were still the healthiest at age 80. Close relationships shield us from the difficult events that happen as we age, Waldinger explains. People who have close relationships in their lives feel less physical pain than those without close or difficult partners. Being part of a compassionate, trusting relationship is comforting.

Good relationships protect our bodies and our brains

Man and woman smiling with Brooklyn Bridge behind them

Waldinger points out that people in solid relationships who feel they can really count on their partner in times of need have sharper brain function and better memory into the later years of their lives. Those in dysfunctional relationships more often experience earlier memory decline.

How can we nurture our relationships?

Life is busy, and tending to relationships can be complicated and time-consuming. So how do we build up closer connections?

  1. Don’t demand perfection. Waldinger says that good relationships don’t alway have to be smooth. From major fights to minor bickering, even close companions will have disagreements. But when you’re in a good relationship, there’s safety in knowing your partner has your back, even through life’s challenges.
  2. Actively seek close friends. To make social connections a priority, Waldinger suggests “leaning into relationships.” Lessen screen time and add people time, revive a relationship by doing something new together, or reach out to a friend or family member with whom you have a feud. Those in the study who were the happiest in retirement were people who had actively worked to find friends after their working days were behind them.
  3. Take an interest in others. Those who are active and interested participants during even the most casual conversations build stronger connections. A recent health report from U.S. News on the benefits of close relationships describes a conversation technique called Active Constructive Responding. The report suggests we should respond to a friend’s good news in the same manner we would to bad news — with 100 percent focus and attention. How we react to a friend or family member’s positive news is as important for the building of a relationship as our reaction to tough news. Showing interest proves you care and generates positive emotions for both parties.
Just like the millennials in that recent survey, many of our men when they were starting out as young adults really believed that fame and wealth and high achievement were what they needed to go after to have a good life. 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. – Robert Waldinger

Dr. Waldinger is now expanding the Study to the Baby Boomer children of these men to understand how childhood experience reaches across decades to affect health and wellbeing in middle age.