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The good life: An 80-year study explains what could make you happy and healthy

The good life: An 80-year study explains what could make you happy and healthy
'The Good Life', a new Harvard study on happiness, found that one is in control of creating one’s own happiness by cultivating quality relationships. Image: Danie Franco / Unsplash

Do you wish you were thriving? Some of us feel we are only surviving. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed when we’re surrounded by bad news; or comparing one’s life to friends’ social media posts creates the impression that everyone else is living their best life while for you happiness is elusive.

In January 2023, The Good Life was published, based on the findings of an ongoing Harvard study that has spanned more than 80 years. The paper, regarded as the longest scientific study of its kind, identifies the most important features of a happier and healthier life. 

The conclusion they reached has remained unchanged over eight decades. Good relationships keep us happier and healthier; loneliness or disconnection affect one’s health; warm relationships not only keep one physically stronger, they reserve one’s brain longer and decrease chronic inflammation and stress; they create a safety net to survive the struggles of life. Close connections are more important than genetics, a good diet, exercise, childhood experiences or one’s financial position.  

The study examined the lives of a cross-section of 784 men from adolescence to old age. They were interviewed regularly, questionnaires were sent out and blood samples, DNA and brain scans were analysed. Today, there are 1,300 participants, including the wives and children of the original group. 

Co-author of the book and current director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, Dr Robert Waldinger, is a professor of psychiatry at the Harvard Medical School. He explains that once one’s basic needs are met, the amount of money one earns makes little difference to happiness and well-being. Life can be full of pain, but this does not preclude one from connecting with others and flourishing; it is never too late. Even though genes and experiences shape the way one sees the world, meaningful change is possible for anyone. 

Each person has a unique attachment style: some of us may avoid closeness while others may be clingy.

The findings show that despite past hardships, one is in control of creating one’s own happiness by cultivating quality relationships. Their findings are also corroborated by hundreds of other scientific studies involving people from all over the world.  

What is a close relationship?

Relationships come in many forms. One could have a partner, a relative, family member, work colleagues or casual friends; some prefer one or two friends while others prefer many connections. Quantity is not important, but quality is and one person could feel isolated and lonely despite having friends or being in a relationship. Talking to strangers could even boost well-being; the study shows that one needs at least one person one can always depend on. 

Relationships need intentional nurturing, too. They can be comparable to staying physically fit which requires regular exercise. In the same way, becoming socially fit involves giving friendships time and undivided attention. Whether an introvert or extrovert, one can learn the skill of listening attentively and being curious about the lives of others. For example, joining clubs to meet like-minded people, volunteering or setting up regular dates with friends are easy ways to make and strengthen friendships.

Waldinger says social media often fills a void when real life interaction isn’t possible. Yet, social media is not the same for everyone and it cannot replace the sensory and emotional experience of in-person contact. Studies show that those who use social media to connect with others and engage actively by commenting on posts, feel better than those who only scroll and compare their lives with the posts of friends having a good time. On this, one should check if screen-time habits make one feel energised or depleted. In fact, Waldinger says you should be aware of how your social media habits affect those close to you. 

Attachment style

Each person has a unique attachment style: some of us may avoid closeness while others may be clingy. Intimate relationships are often challenging because they make us vulnerable, but they can also be the most rewarding. 

The most successful relationships are not the ones where there is no disagreement. The keystone to a good relationship is where one feels safe enough to open oneself up to be fully known and to knowing the other person deeply; disagreements and emotions are part of any close relationship. In the end, what matters is how we manage them and whether one can talk differences through with affection. The study found that the people who were the most satisfied in their relationships at age 50 were the healthiest at 80. 

How do you attain a good life? 

As the old saying goes, Waldinger believes it is by recognising that the good life is not a destination. It is the journey and the people who walk with you. 

Every minute of every day you can decide who matters and to whom you give attention. Time and time again their findings have shown that lifelong happiness doesn’t depend on a life of ease and leisure or personal achievements. The good life is found in finding purpose and meaning through the lives you enrich and close relationships you cultivate. DM/ML


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