General Society

The real key to being happy

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Written by Tim Barnes-Clay

Many of us shy away from answering a simple question: are we truly happy?

Most of us feel that the more we possess, the happier we will be. It could be that dream house you’re working towards. Or the private school you have your eye set on. Or something more personal like a career-defining promotion. The want for things is endless. Imagine if you managed to own everything you always wanted (the thought itself makes me happy). Would you then have reached your peak of happiness?

The answer is no. And this isn’t an answer I’ve pulled out from my own intellect. This is backed by 75 years of research conducted by trained physiologists from Harvard University. (Well if Harvard says so then it must be true, right?)

The hypothesis

The study began in 1938 (the longest ever study on happiness). It originally focused on 700 men from different backgrounds in their early to late teens. The researchers regularly checked in with the participants every two years. And it still continues today for those participants still alive, while also adding their wives and children in the focus groups.

Robert J. Waldinger (Don’t miss his Ted Talk), the fourth director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, has revealed the three most important secrets to a long and happy life. Amazingly, they have nothing to do with money. They all relate back to the quality of human connections and relationships we have!

The results

In his TED talk, Waldinger shares three very important lessons of what they discovered from the research:

  1. The more socially connected you are, the better and happier life you will live.

The more socially connected you are, the higher chances are that you will be happy. Human interactions contribute to a happier, healthier and longer life. Living a life with people you can connect with, talk to and share your happy and sad moments means living a high quality life. The opposite is also true, though. Loneliness can be harmful to both physical and mental health.

  1. The quality, not the quantity, of your relationships matters the most

Having social connections doesn’t mean you need to be in a secure committed relationship or have lots of friends. This means that the quality (supportive, genuine and trustworthy) of these connections needs to be of significant value to you. In fact, the study tried to correlate the longevity of the participants to a point in their life. It turned out that a predictor for a long life could be found in their satisfaction from the relationships they had at age 50. Waldinger pointed that “the people who were the most satisfied in their relationships at age 50 were the healthiest at age 80.”

  1. Good relationships protect our brains and bodies

A key point of a good relationship is the ability to rely on the other person. Having someone to count on in times of need means having a healthier brain. The people who are in relationships where they really feel they can count on the other person in times of need, those people’s memories stay sharper longer.

This kind of relationship based on trust and reliability doesn’t necessarily mean that it would be smooth all the time. Every relationship comes with ups and downs. The key element in these relationships is the the partners’ ability to rely on each other and feel protected.