An impressive 75-year-long Harvard study tracked the lives of 724 men from their teen years to old age to find the answer. Sixty of those men are still alive and participating in the study along with their 2,000-plus children.
What makes the study fascinating is researchers focused on two very different types of men. The first set of men were sophomore students at Harvard and the second set were from troubled and disadvantaged families in Boston’s poorest neighborhoods.
As different as they were, apparently happiness was achieved in similar ways.
No surprise, wealth and a successful career did not always equal happiness. (Although, by the way people are standing in line for hours and going crazy for the billion dollar lottery this week, it appears people still think money brings happiness.) Having a meaningful connection to the type of work they were doing was more important than achieving traditional success and wealth. Intelligence didn’t guarantee happiness either.
As all the song lyrics seem to agree, it seems that love is the answer. The greatest takeaway from the study was the revelation that relationships bring us the most joy and happiness. As Mary Stuart stated, “To be kind to all, to like many and love a few, to be needed and wanted by those we love, is certainly the nearest we can come to happiness.”
You probably could have guessed as much. But there’s more to the study than just that.
In a recent TED talk (a nonprofit organization devoted to spreading ideas in the form of short, powerful talks), Robert Waldinger, the fourth director of the study discussed some of their findings.
What can we learn from this study?
No surprise, the men in both groups who had better relationships with family, friends and community were both happier and healthier than their less social counterparts. They also lived longer. On the other hand, lonely people who were isolated had more health related problems and reported feeling less happy. They also suffered from sleep disorders, had more mental health issues, and lived shorter lives.
However, not just any old miserable committed relationship will do. In fact, the study showed that people who were alone were happier than people in turbulent “high-conflict” relationships. That agrees with research that has shown chronic stress from a bad marriage can affect the immune system.
The quality of close relationships mattered more than the number of friends the men had or whether they were in committed relationships. Interestingly, the Harvard study found that the people who were most satisfied in their relationships at age 50 were the healthiest at age 80. Take a mental note to nurture your relationships into old age.
Stable, secure, and supportive marriages not only contributed to happiness but to better memories as well.
The Harvard study found that married people who had never been divorced, separated, or experienced “serious problems” before age 50 performed better on memory tests later in life. Other research has found that marriage has been linked to a lowered risk of dementia.
In other words, participants who felt they could rely on their partners during old age in times of need found their memories stayed sharper for longer.
Men with Mommy Issues Fared Badly
In a conclusion that surely would have pleased Freud, the study suggested that a man’s relationship with his mother matters long into adulthood.
Men who had “warm” childhood relationships with their mother were less likely to develop dementia later in life and more likely to have professional success. In fact, they earned an average of $87,000 more a year than men whose mothers were uncaring.
Late in their professional lives, the men’s boyhood relationships with their mothers—interestingly not with their fathers—were associated with effectiveness at work.
Stay Away from the Booze and Cigarettes
Alcoholism was the main cause of divorce between the Harvard study men and their wives and it was strongly correlated with neurosis and depression. Together with associated cigarette smoking, it was the single greatest contributor to their early morbidity and death.
Happiness is Love
Psychiatrist George Vaillant, who led the study from 1972 to 2004, wrote regarding this study, “The 75 years and 20 million dollars expended on the Grant Study points … to a straightforward five-word conclusion: ‘Happiness is love. Full stop.’“
Now that you know what made these men happiest over three quarters of a century, hopefully you’ll make any necessary changes. Quit chasing financial success and crying that you didn’t win the lottery, let go of any mommy issues, stop smoking and drinking too much, and concentrate on the relationships in your life.
Some powerful and enlightening insight to take with us into and beyond 2016!
Images courtesy of imagerymajestic, photostock, and Tina Phillips at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.