The secret to happiness: what a 75-year Harvard study and my 45th birthday revealed

Turns out, there's a secret to a happy and healthy life, and I discovered it this week from two unrelated sources: the 75-year Harvard Study of Adult Development (the world's longest study of mental and physical well-being or 'happiness' conducted since 1938), and my 45th birthday on Monday.

This secret is the one thing the Harvard researchers say we should all prioritise if we want to live a happier, healthier, and more fulfilling life. It's the one thing the research (also called the Grant and Glueck Study), which tracked 268 Harvard graduates from the classes of 1939-1944 (the Grant Study), and 456 men who grew up in the inner-city neighborhoods of Boston (the Glueck Study), identified as the greatest predictor of happiness, health and fulfilment over a lifetime.

So, what is this secret? This one thing? According to the Harvard study director, Dr Robert Waldinger, it's this:


"The clearest message that we get from this 75-year study is this: good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period."

But they're not just talking any and every relationship here. There are some interesting angles to consider.

First, the type of good relationship that matters most to our health and happiness is a quality connection with someone we can rely on. 

Study director, Dr Robert Waldinger, says, "It's not the number of Facebook friends you have; it's about the quality and depth of the relationships you have." One article about the study I read described this as the degree of vulnerability and depth within the relationship, the extent to which both people feel safe sharing in the relationship, and their capacity to relax with each other and to really show themselves and see each other. 

Second, this quality relationship doesn't have to be with a spouse or partner. It may be with a close friend or sibling, for instance. 

Dr Waldinger says: "We found that having a close relationship with even one of your siblings made a big difference in your happiness level across adulthood."

Going further, George Vaillant, the Harvard psychiatrist who directed the study from 1972 to 2004, said there are two elements to this notion of quality relationship: "One is love. The other is finding a way of coping with life that does not push love away."

So exactly how does this type of quality relationship affect our health? Dr Waldinger says, "The chronic stress of being lonely [and] being unhappy gets into the body and breaks it down over time." On the flipside, a quality connection relaxes the nervous system, keeps the brain healthier for longer, and reduces emotional and physical pain. 

Sounds awesome, but how do we make sure we develop and nurture this type of quality connection? Dr Waldinger says it comes down to "being present" and to giving those closest to us our "full attention". Of course, this can be difficult in our distracted world, but Dr Waldinger believes it's well worth it for our health, happiness and longevity to stop and notice how we're interacting with others and to pay careful attention.

This short clip from a 2016 episode of CBS This morning featuring Dr Waldinger is a good backgrounder on the study and its lessons:

Interestingly, the original study didn't track women, but Harvard is now addressing this with a second generation study following the nearly 2000 children of the original participants (Baby Boomers in their 50s and 60s today). 

So, how does this happiness discovery relate to my 45th birthday last Monday, you ask? I'm no Harvard social researcher, but I came to roughly the same conclusion about happiness and contentment that day (as I have on other days too): it's the people in our lives who make it the most meaningful, rewarding and enjoyable.

On Monday, messages and flower deliveries from the other side of the world (timed to beat the time difference), major excitement from my kids, and then lunch with my husband, far overshadowed the presents I got to unwrap that morning (even though they were exactly what I wanted). Put simply: the people, the connections, and the love and friendship I felt made the day most significant and special. The gifts and the wrapping and even the delicious food for lunch paled against the human connections. Can you relate to this too?

Of course, writing this, I am acutely aware that not everyone has a 'quality relationship' with someone they can rely on, and that makes me fervently wish for better times ahead for those people. It also makes me remember (yet again) that when we are lucky enough to have quality relationships and other good things in our lives, we need to be grateful for them (because being grateful also has awesome health benefits) and prioritise them – just as the Harvard study prescribes.

If you're curious to know more, here's a TEDTalk by Dr Robert Waldinger



Natalie Bartley