Get this: Wealth, fame and success don’t make us happy, but strong relationships do.
That’s according to a 77-year-long Harvard Study of Adult Development that I read about.
The study began in 1938 with 724 men from two distinct groups. The first group: 268 sophomores from Harvard. The second group: 456 schoolboys, all 16 years old, from an impoverished area in Boston.
At the beginning of the study, the subjects were given medical examinations and researchers interviewed their parents to gain “a deep understanding of their lives.”
Then every two years, researchers surveyed their lives and “explored their attitudes toward their work and home lives.” Every five years they were given medical examinations.
Of the 724 males, 60 are still alive and still participating in the study.
So what have researchers learned about human happiness?
According to Harvard psychiatry professor Robert Waldinger, the study’s fourth director, there are three key findings:
» First, loneliness can kill.
“People with more social connections — be that to family members, friends or in a community — are happier, physically healthier and tend to live longer,” reported Britain’s The Independent, summarizing the study. But “those who are more isolated from others than they wish to be suffer with poor health and experience a decline in brain function sooner than those who aren’t.”
But we know all this to be true.
We know that the happiest moments in our own lives involved friends and family. These are the people who affect the deeper part of our nature — our spirits and souls — where true happiness resides. These are the people who can make us laugh so hard our guts hurt or help us when we’re down or engage us in deeply satisfying conversations.
And yet we spend most of our waking hours not nurturing our friends and families but chasing success and money and a bigger house. And the happiness that is right under our noses eludes us.
» The second key finding of the study: The quality of relationships matters.
“While being lonely is harmful, being surrounded by people isn’t necessarily helpful in itself,” said Waldinger. “We know that you can be lonely in a crowd and lonely in a marriage.”
In the era of social media, when we have more “virtual” friends than ever, why are so many people lonelier than ever?
» The study’s third key finding should be obvious: Strong relationships make us happy, but they require work.
“Waldinger said that people who feel they can count on another person when they face trouble have stronger memory, while those who don’t see this faculty decline earlier,” reports The Independent.
The study validates what we know in our bones. But we’re a conflicted people in America.
On one hand, we think wealth and fame are the keys to happiness. We want adulation and expensive cars and big houses staffed by a dozen servants.
On the other hand, we know wealth and fame are bogus. You don’t know who your friends really are until your money is gone. And if you ever do anything stupid, the media will broadcast it all over the world.
Well, nuts to that.
If you want to be healthy and happy, follow the Harvard study’s findings and engage a handful of good people in high-quality relationships. Contact the writer: Tom@TomPurcell.com