How to be happy—according to science

Strong relationships seem to protect against bad health

The secret to a happy life may be building close relationships with family and friends, according to an ongoing study that began more than 75 years ago. 

According to the Washington Post, the so-called Grant Study is the longest-ever study of human development. It began in 1938 when researchers started tracking nearly every aspect of the lives of a group of Harvard University undergraduates. In the 1970s, it merged with another research project that had tracked low-income white men from Boston since the 1940s. Altogether, the study has examined the lives of about 700 participants, all white males—and sometimes their spouses and children.

The men have been regularly interviewed, physically examined, and otherwise put under the proverbial microscope throughout their lives. The surviving study participants are now in their 90s.

A lifetime of findings

Over the years the study has produced many findings about what's bad for you, including that smoking is the single worst thing you can do for your physical health and that alcohol is a primary cause of divorce.

As for what's good for you? The study has found that it's not money or fame that makes people happy, but close relationships with family and friends.

How a $75,000 salary does—and doesn't—make you happy

"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," Robert Waldinger, a Harvard psychiatrist and current director of the study, says in a recent TED Talk. "Good, close relationships seem to buffer us from some of the slings and arrows of getting old."

A choice worth making

Waldinger thinks it's important to expose more people to the Grant Study and its findings. "We publish our findings in academic journals that most people don't read," he notes. "We've been funded by the government for so many years, and it's important that more people know about this besides academics."

The findings have certainly made a difference for Waldinger, who says he now strives to emphasize personal connections over publishing more research. But he also says the research indicates that relationships don't have to be perfect to promote wellbeing.

Some of the study's couples in their 80s, he says, "could bicker day in and day out. But as long as they felt that they could really count on the other when the going got tough, those arguments didn’t take a toll on their memories."

Study: Young people happier than in the past, but 'mature adults' sadder

The study has its limits, including that it follows only white men. And correlation doesn't always equal causation—but Waldinger says the evidence is so strong he believes there is a causal connection between close relationships and a happy life.

At minimum, he says people should know that prioritizing relationships can reap dividends that money and fame may not be able to deliver. "It's a choice worth making"(Itkowitz, "Inspired Life," Washington Post, 3/2; O'Connor, "Well," New York Times, 3/23).

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