What is The Secret to Happiness and Longevity? The Longest Study in History May Give Us an Answer

What is the secret of happiness and longevity? If like many you believe that fame and wealth are the answer, then you are wrong. After studying the lives of 724 people for more than 75 years, Harvard scientists offer us a completely different perspective.

As the coordinator of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, perhaps the longest study of its kind in history, psychiatrist Robert Waldinger was able to observe, analyzing the impressive amount of data collected by researchers, what elements can make people's life long and fulfilled.

"What keeps us healthy and happy as we go through life? If you were going to invest in your future now, what would you invest your time and energy into? In an opinion poll, young people were asked what are the most important life goals they have, and over 80% said that a major goal for them is to get rich, and another 50% said that another major goal is to become famous. And we are constantly told to work harder, to put in more effort, and to get more benefits. We get the impression that these are the things we need to pursue in order to lead a good life.
Happiness life
Credit Picture: collective-evolution.com
A complete picture of a man's whole life, in which we can see the choices he makes and what effect these choices have on him ... this picture is almost impossible to obtain. Usually, what we know about human life, we know because we ask people to remember the past, but retrospectives are not exactly accurate. We forget a lot of things about what happened to us in life, and sometimes our memory is downright creative.


What if we could pursue the life of a person as it unfolds over time? If we could study people from the time they became teenagers until they reach old age, to see what really keeps them happy and healthy? I did that," Robert Waldinger said in a TEDxBeaconStreet speech.

An Extraordinary 75-year-old Harvard Study

The Harvard Study of Adult Development could be the longest study of its kind ever. For 75 years, researchers have looked at the lives of 724 people, year after year, asked about their work, health, or family life and, of course, about many other aspects of their private lives.

Studies like this are extremely rare. According to Waldinger, almost all projects of this type do not exceed a decade, either because too many people drop out of the study or because funding for the project is interrupted, researchers turn their attention to something else or die, and no one continues what they started. But through a combination of luck and the persistence of several generations of researchers, this study survived.

About 60 of the 724 people were still alive in 2015, still participating in the study, and most were around 90 years old. Researchers decided to repeat the experiment on the more than 2,000 children of these people, said Waldinger, the study's fourth director.

"Since 1938, I have watched the lives of two groups of people. The first group was made up of sophomores at Harvard. They all graduated during World War II, then most of them went to war. The second group consisted of young people from the poorest neighborhoods of Boston who were chosen for the special study because they were part of the most troubled and disadvantaged families in Boston since the 1930s. Most lived on rent, many without cold and hot running water.

After they were included in the study, all of these teens were interviewed, they were given medical examinations, we went to their homes, and interviewed their parents. Then these teenagers became adults, belonging to all social categories. They went from factory workers to lawyers, masons, or doctors, and one of them was the president of the United States. Some became alcoholics, some schizophrenics.

Some climbed the social ladder from the bottom to the top, and others went the other way. The founders of this study did not even imagine in their wildest dreams that I would be standing here today, 75 years later, to tell you that the study continues," says Waldinger in November 2015.

In order to get a clear picture of the lives of those participating in the study, researchers do not just send them questionnaires.

"We interview them at home, take their medical records from their doctors, take blood tests, scan their brains, talk to their children, film them talking to their wives about their deepest concerns. And when, about a decade ago, I finally asked their wives if they wanted to join as members of the study, many of whom said, 'You know, it was time',", recalled the expert.

So what did the researchers learn? What are the lessons that come from the tens of thousands of pages of information they have gathered about the lives of these people? Waldinger shares with us the three important lessons that researchers have learned from the study.

Three Important Lessons

"Well, the lessons are not about wealth or fame, or about working harder and harder. The clearest message we get from this 75-year study is this: Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period. I learned three great lessons about relationships.

The first is that social relationships are extremely beneficial to us and that loneliness kills. It seems that people who are more socially connected to family, friends, community, are happier, healthier, and live longer than those who are less connected. And loneliness turns out to be toxic. People who are more isolated than they want to be, are less happy, their health deteriorates faster, as does their brain function, and they have a shorter life than others.

And we know that you can be alone although you are surrounded by a lot of people and you can be alone in a marriage, so the second big lesson we learned is that it's not just about the number of friends you have, or about whether or not you are engaged in a relationship, but about the quality of your relationships with the people close to you.

It seems that life in the middle of conflicts is very harmful to our health. Conflicting marriages, for example, which lead to a lack of affection, prove to be very harmful to health, perhaps more harmful than a divorce. While living in the middle of a beautiful, warm relationship gives us protection.

Once we watched the study participants until they turned 80, we wanted to look back at the first half of their lives to see if we could anticipate which of them would become a happy and healthy octogenarian and which would not. After gathering everything I knew about them at age 50, I found that it was not their middle-aged cholesterol that could predict how they would age, but how satisfied they were with their relationships. The people who were happiest in their relationships at age 50 were the healthiest at age 80.

Beautiful, close relationships seem to act as a buffer in the case of problems that come with age. The happiest people, married women, and men in their 80s reported that in the days when they were in great physical pain, their mood remained just as good. But people who had unhappy relationships, in the days when they had more physical pain, that pain was amplified by greater emotional suffering.

And the third great lesson we have learned about relationships and our health is that good relationships not only protect our bodies, they also protect our brains. Memory remains in good working order more in the case of people involved in relationships that give them the assurance that they can really count on the other person in difficult times.

On the other hand, the memory of people in relationships in which they feel they cannot count on the other degenerates faster. However, these good relationships do not always have to be peaceful. Some of our octogenarian couples may quarrel every day, but as long as they feel they can really count on each other when things go wrong, these quarrels have not affected their memory.

So this message - that beautiful, close relationships are good for our health and well-being - is a piece of ancient wisdom as old as the world.

Why is this so difficult to obtain and so easy to ignore? Well, we're human. And what we would like is a quick remedy so that will be able to make our lives better and stay that way. Relationships are complicated and involve a serious effort that lasts a lifetime. It never ends.

The people in our 75-year study who were happiest when bey became old were the ones who took this aspect seriously. Like the study I mentioned earlier, many of our study participants, when they were young, really believed that they had to pursue fame, wealth, and high achievements in order to have a good life. But our study showed that the people who had a better fate are those who leaned towards relationships with family, friends, community. (...)

I'd like to end with a quote from Mark Twain. More than a century ago, recalling his life, he wrote the following words: 'There is no time, life is so short, for quarrels, justifications, jealousy, accountability. We only have time to love and even for that, we only have but a moment... "