Happiness Study: What Makes Us Happy & Healthy?

June 16, 2017
Happiness study - Dr. Axe

With the Powerball lottery jackpot reaching insane heights — to the tune of over $1.5 billion — many people are dreaming about how all that money will make them happy. Yet, as the saying goes, money doesn’t buy happiness, and according to recent findings from a 75-year (and counting) happiness study, this idiom appears to be 100 percent true.

In fact, according to psychiatrist, psychoanalyst and Zen priest Robert Waldinger, the director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development (aka the Harvard Happiness Study), “The clearest message that we get from this 75-year study is this: Good relationships keep us happier and healthier, period.” (1)

This, of course, is in contrast to what most of us believe. Waldinger, citing a study in which 80 percent of Millennials said a major life goal was to get rich and 50 percent said another major goal was to become famous, said, “We’re constantly told to lean into work, to push harder and achieve more. We’re given the impression that these are the things that we need to go after in order to have a good life.”

But according to the Harvard Happiness Study — and what we’ve learned from the world’s longest-living cultures — those aren’t the things that make us happy. It’s those healthy, sustained relationships that make us truly fulfilled.


Relationships and Happiness

Three big lessons on relationships have been unveiled through the Harvard Happiness Study, which Waldinger shared in his TED Talk.

1. Social Connections Matter

Researchers have found that people who have more social connections to family, friends and community are happier, physically healthier and live longer than people with fewer social connections. This is a tenet of people from the blue zones, where some of the healthiest, longest-living people on the planet live.

In fact, according to a study conducted by the University of Athens School of Medicine, people living in the blue zones have reported that,

… some lifestyle characteristics, like family coherence, avoidance of smoking, plant-based diet, moderate and daily physical activity, social engagement, where people of all ages are socially active and integrated into the community, are common in all people enrolled in the surveys. (2)

Furthermore, loneliness kills and “turns out to be toxic.” Loners, those who are isolated or outcast, are less happy, less healthy, their health declines earlier and their brain functioning declines sooner. To top it off, they tend to have shorter lives.

“The sad fact is that at any given time, more than one in five Americans will report that they’re lonely,” Waldinger said.

2. Quality Is More Important than Quantity

The number of social connections isn’t an indicator of happiness, necessarily, however. Our close relationships must be healthy relationships in order to influence our happiness in a positive manner.

Living in conflict is extremely damaging to our health. For example, according to Waldinger, high-conflict marriages without much affection are perhaps worse than getting divorced, while sustaining good, warm relationships is protective to our health. That is why conflict resolution is so vital to maintaining strong relationships.

One startling finding occurred when researchers attempted to find indicators for late-life happiness at midlife. Turns out, the Harvard Happiness Study participants’ health at 50 — such as cholesterol levels — wasn’t an accurate predictor of longevity; it was how satisfied they were in their relationships.

How did the Harvard Happiness Study reveal this? The participants who were most happy with their relationships at 50 turned out to be healthier than those who weren’t satisfied with their relationships when they reached 80.

Not only that, but being happy in old age turned out to not be affected by physical pain that often comes from decades of wear and tear on the body. Thus, physical pain becomes magnified by emotional pain, Waldinger said.

3. Good Relationships Protect Our Brains

In addition to longer life and better physical health, sustaining healthy relationships protects our brains as well. Our memories stay sharper longer, especially when we feel we can count on people with whom we have close relationships.

In addition, Dan Buettner, author of “The Blue Zones,” shares the importance of strong relationships to those living in the blue zone regions:

The world’s longevity all-stars not only live longer, they also tend to live better. They have strong connections with their family and friends. They’re active. They wake up in the morning knowing that they have a purpose, and the world, in turn, reacts to them in a way that propels them along. An overwhelming majority of them still enjoy life. (3)


How to Apply the Happiness Study Findings

Truth be told, these lessons aren’t all that shocking. We’ve known seemingly forever that happy, healthy, close relationships are good for our health. However, it’s something many people ignore for myriad reasons: financial pressures, chronic stress, societal expectations, etc.

As Waldinger put it, “We’re human. What we’d really like is a quick fix, something we can get that’ll make our lives good and keep them that way. Relationships are messy and they’re complicated and the hard work of tending to family and friends, it’s not sexy or glamorous. It’s also lifelong. It never ends.”

So how can we take a step back from the 21st-century “always on” mentality and put more focus on our lives outside of work and the online world? Waldinger suggested a few ways:

  • Replace screen time with people time. That means overcoming nomophobia and FOMO.
  • Liven up a stale relationship by doing something new together — long walks or date nights, for example.
  • Reach out to a family member you haven’t spoken to in years.
  • Let go of family feuds and grudges.
  • Focus on personal well-being, both physical and mental. Practice healing prayer.
  • Build those close relationships.

In addition, Buettner has a few suggestions as well, gleaned from the blue zones:

  • Surround yourself with family members and close friends who share your values. For residents of the blue zones, this comes naturally because social connectedness is ingrained into their cultures. Staying connected is a natural way to bust stress and improve quality of life.
  • Build a strong support system. People in the blue zones “have better and stronger systems of support, they’re much more engaged with and helpful to each other, more willing and able to express feelings, including grief and anger, and other aspects of intimacy.” This type of social system reinforces healthy, positive behaviors and stress, which is one of the biggest contributors to chronic disease. There’s a lot of existing evidence that shows acute or chronic psychological stress can induce a chronic inflammatory process, which over time can increase the risk for diseases like heart disease, mental disorders, autoimmune diseases and digestive problems. (4)
  • Focus on family. For example, during the weekly 24-hour sabbath that Seventh-day Adventist practice, they spend time focusing on family, God, camaraderie and nature.

If you do those things, your chances of a longer, healthier, happier life are greater — because, as Waldinger said, “The good life is built with good relationships.”


About the Happiness Study

For 75 years, the Harvard Study of Adult Development — aka the Happiness Study — has tracked the lives of 724 men, tracking their work, home lives, health, etc., year after year, to get a better picture of what makes people happy. About 60 of the original subjects are still alive and participating in the study, while more than 2,000 children of those original 724 are being study as well.

Two groups of men have been tracked since 1938. The first started as sophomores at Harvard while the second included a group of boys from Boston’s poorest neighborhoods, chosen specifically because they were from troubled and disadvantaged families. They’ve been tracked through survey questionnaires and interviews their entire lives and receive another questionnaire and round of interviews — in their living rooms — every two years.

Researchers also get their medical records from their doctors, draw their blood, scan their brains and talk to their children. They also take video of them talking with their wives about their concerns and recently asked the wives to join the study.


Happiness Study Takeaways

  • “The clearest message that we get from this 75-year study is this: Good relationships keep us happier and healthier, period.”
  • Social connections matter. Researchers have found that people who have more social connections to family, friends and community are happier, physically healthier and live longer than people with fewer social connections.
  • Quality of relationship is more important than quantity of relationships. The number of social connections isn’t an indicator of happiness, necessarily, however. Our close relationships must be healthy relationships in order to influence our happiness in a positive manner.
  • Good relationships protect our brains. Our memories stay sharper longer, especially when we feel we can count on people with whom we have close relationships.
  • You can put these findings into practice these ways: Replace screen time with people time, liven up a stale relationship by doing something new together, reach out to a family member you haven’t spoken to in years, let go of family feuds and grudges, focus on personal well-being, build close relationships, surround yourself with people who share your values, build a strong support system, and focus on family.

Read Next: How to Lengthen Your Telomeres & Unlock the Key to Longevity


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