A 75-Year Study Reveals What Really Makes Us Happy

Robert Waldinger directed a 75-year study looking at what makes us happy. It boils down to three things, and they’re not the things we tend to think are going to make us happy. His TED Talk about the study findings challenges our most common life goals.

When you ask most people what would make them happy, their answers tend to cluster around achievement. Maybe they think they’d be happier if they were rich or famous. Or maybe they feel like success in their careers would bring them true happiness.

Unlike many studies on happiness, the Harvard Study of Health Development happened in real time. The researchers didn’t rely on memories of past events. Instead, this project—passed down from research team to research team for 75 years—followed a group of 724 men through their lives. They were interviewed every two years, and got complete physicals at every check-in.

When the project began, 268 of the men were sophomores at Harvard University, where they study took place. The other 456 men were inner city Boston high school students.

Waldinger was the study’s fourth director, and in his talk, he explains some of the interesting findings about happiness. He says happiness boils down to three things, but if you wanted to sum it up even more succinctly, you could say this: What really makes us happy is social connection.

What really makes us happy?

Waldinger says there are three main lessons about what really makes us happy that come from this study:

  1. Social connections are critical to our mental and physical health. Whether it’s relationships with family, friends or neighbors, people who have social connection are happier and healthier. In fact, he says, loneliness is toxic. People who want these relationships but lack them are not only not as happy but they experience worse health.
  2. Your number of friends doesn’t matter. What matters most is the quality of your relationships, not the quantity. People with loving relationships in their lives, not just from spouses, but friends or other family members, had overall better health. Quality of relationships was a better predictor of later-life health than markers we tend to focus on, like cholesterol levels.
  3. Quality relationships are good for brain health. People who have quality relationships in their lives have better memory as they age. People without quality relationships were more likely to experience cognitive decline as they grew older.

He defines a quality relationship as one where you feel like you can count on the other person. He says that doesn’t mean never fighting. It means an overall sense of security.

When you hear these results, they sort of seem like a no-brainer, right? But when the study began, 80 percent of participants said being rich would make them happy. We know on some level that relationships are a key to happiness, but we tend to discount their full importance. Why? Waldinger gets into that in his talk, as well (at around 12:15, if you want to skip ahead). You can watch it in full right here:

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286 comments

Melania P
Melania P11 days ago

Interesting, I think having a purpose/cause in life, instead of looking for happiness per se is also a key to happiness. Thanks for sharing

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Jessica K
Jessica K23 days ago

I like that the article emphasizes quality relationships. Having a bunch of bodies around doesn't mean that one isn't isolated or lonely. Thanks.

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Mariya K
Mariya Kostromitskajaabout a month ago

Thanks

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One Heart i
One Heart incabout a month ago

Thanks!!!

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Sas G
Sas Gabout a month ago

thanks

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Trish K
Trish K1 months ago

Happiest times and healthiest times seem to go together

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Panchali Yapa
Panchali Yapa1 months ago

Thank you

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Christy J
Christy J1 months ago

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Leo C
Leo Custer1 months ago

Thank you for sharing.

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Eric Lees
Eric Lees1 months ago

Interesting. Not good for my health, I find myself in my 40s with no real friends. I get alone with most of my co-workers but have nobody that I hang out with outside of work. Any good websites for finding real friends, Facebook hasn't helped?

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