What keeps us healthy and happy as we go through life? If you were going to invest now, and your future best self, where would you put your time and energy? There was a recent survey of millenniums asking them what their most important life goals were. And over 80% said that major life goal for them was to get rich. And another 50% of those same young adults said that another major life goal was to become famous and were constantly told to lean in to work to push harder and achieve more and were give the impression that these are things that we need to go after in order to have a good life.
Pictures of entire life, the choices that people make and how those choices work out for them, those pictures are almost impossible to get.
Most of what we know about human life, we know from asking people through remembering the past. We forget vast amount of what happened to us in life, and sometimes memory is damn right creative. But, what we could watch entire life as they unfold through time, what if we could study people from the time when they were a teenagers to all the way to into old age to see what keeps people happy and healthy.
The Glueck Study– A Study on Happiness
The Harvard study of ‘Adult Development‘ is the longest study of adult life, that has ever been done, which is known as “The Glueck Study“, in which, the scholars tracked the lives of seven hundred twenty four men for over 80 years of time. Year after year asking about their work, their work, their home lives, their health and of course all along the way without knowing how their life stories were going to turn out.
Studies like this are exceedingly rare, almost all projects of these kinds fall apart within a decade because too many people drop out of the study, or funding for the research dries up, or the researcher gets distracted or they die and nobody moves the balls further down the field. But through several combination of luck and the persistence of several generations of researchers, this study survived.
About sixty of their seven hundred twenty four men, are still alive, still alive, still participating in the study and most of them are into their nineties. And now, the team of ‘Adult Development’ is studying two thousand children of those seven hundred twenty four men and ‘Robert Waldinger’ is the fourth director of the research team.
Since 1938, they have tracked the lives of two groups of men. The first group started in the study when they were students of Harvard College, they all finished college during World War II and then most went off to serve in the war. And the second group that they followed was a group of boys from Boston’s forest neighborhoods. Boys who were chosen for the studies specifically because they were from some of the most troubled and disadvantaged family in the Boston in 1930s. Most lived in tenements, many without hot and cold running water.
When they entered the study, all of those teenagers were interviewed, they were given medical exams, they went to their home and interviewed their parents and then those teenagers grew up into adults who entered all walks of life. They became factory workers, lawyers, doctors, farmers, one became President of United States of America (John F. Kennedy), some developed alcoholism, some climbed the social ladder from the bottom to all the way to very top and some made the journey at the opposite direction.
The founders of this study, would never in their wildest dreams have ever imagined that somebody, after eighty years, would be telling that the study is still continued. Every two years, the dedicated researchers ask their patients if they can send them one more set of questions about their lives. Many of the inter city Boston men ask ‘why you all keep running and studying our life, it isn’t that interesting’. To get the clearest pictures of their lives, they don’t just send them questionnaires, they interview them in their living rooms, they get their medical records from their doctors, they draw their blood, they scan their brain, they talk to their children, they video tape them talking with their wives about their deepest concerns.
And when, about a decade ago, they finally asked the wives, if they would join them as members of the study, many of the women said, “You know, it’s about time”. So what have they learned? What are the lessons that come from the tens of thousands of pages of information that they have generated on these lives? Well, the lessons are not about wealth or fame or working harder and harder.
The clearest message that they got from eighty years of study is this:
1. Good relationships keep us happier and healthier
They have learned three big lessons about relationships. The first is that social connections are really good for us, and that loneliness kills. It turns out that people who are more socially connected to family, to friends, to community, are happier, they are physically healthier, and they live longer than people who are less well connected.
And the experience of loneliness turns out to be toxic. People who are more isolated than they want to be from others find that they are less happy, their health declines earlier in midlife, their brain functioning declines sooner and they live shorter lives than people who are not lonely. And the sad fact is that at any given time, more than one in five Americans will report that they are lonely.
2. A Good Marriage is Important
And we all know that we can be lonely in a crowd and we can be lonely in a marriage, so the second big lesson that they came to learn that it’s not just number of friends you have, and it’s not whether or not you are in a committed relationship, but it is the quality of our close relationships that matters.
It turns out that living in the midst of conflict is really bad for our health. High-conflict marriages, for example, without much affection, turn out to be very bad for our health, perhaps worse than getting divorced. And living in the midst of a warm good relationships is protective.
Once, the researchers had followed their men all the way into their 80s, they wanted to look back at them at midlife and to see if they could predict who was going to grow into a happy, healthy octogenarian and who was not. And when they gathered together everything the researchers and scholars knew about them at age 50, it was not their middle age cholesterol levels that predicted how they were going to grow old. It was how satisfied they were in their relationships. The people who were the most satisfied in their relationships at age 50 were the healthiest at age 80. And good, close relationships seem to buffer us from some of the slings and arrows of getting old.
The most happily partnered men and women reported, in their 80s, that on the days when they had more physical pain, their mood stayed just as happy. But the people who were in unhappy relationship, on the days when they reported more physical pain, it was magnified by more emotional pain.
3. Having Good Post Retirement Relationships
And the third big lesson that they learned about relationships and our health is that good relationships don’t just protect our bodies, they protect our brains. It turns out that being in a securely attached relationship to another person in our 80s is protective, that the people who are in relationships where they really feel they can count on the other person in times of need, those people’s memory stays sharper longer. And the people in relationships where they feel they really can’t count on the other one, those are the people who experience earlier memory decline.
And those good relationships, they don’t have to be smooth all the time. Some of their octogenarian couples could bicker with each other day in and day out, but as long as they felt that they could really count on the other when the going gets tough, those arguments didn’t take a roll on their memories.
So, this message that good, close relationships are good for our health and well-being, this is wisdom that’s as old as the hills. Why is this so easy to get and so easy to ignore? Well, we are human. What we really like is a quick fix, something we can get that will make our lives good and keep them that way. We need to nurture our relationship with others when we are older.
The people in the eighty years of study who were the happiest in the retirement were the people who had actively worked to replace workmates with new playmates. Just like the millennial in that recent survey, many of their men when they were starting out as young adults really believed that fame and wealth and high achievement were what they needed to go after to have a good life.
But over and over , over these 80 years, the study has shown that the people who fared the best were the people who leaned in to relationships, with family, with friends, with community.
Relationships are messy and they are complicated and the hard work of tending to family and friends, it’s not attractive or glamorous. It’s also lifelong. It never ends.
So, what about you? Let’s say you are 20, or you are 25, or you are 60. What might leaning into relationships even look like? Well, the possibilities are practically endless. It might be something as simple as replacing screen time with people time or livening up a stale relationship by doing something new together, long walks, family dinner date or reaching out to that family member who you have not spoken to in years, because those all-too-common family feuds take a terrible toll on the people who hold the grudges.
While true happiness may have distinct definition for different people, science can give us a glimpse at the underlying biological factors behind happiness. From the food we eat to temperature we live in, there are thousands aspects that play major role in how our brains work, and also the moods that we are in. Understanding these factors is helpful in achieving lasting happiness.