Almost anyone would tell you that happiness is a crucial part of life, but unfortunately, it’s a concept that is hard to accurately study and measure. Luckily, researchers at Harvard have been trying to tackle that challenge, by exploring data in the Harvard Study of Adult Development for the past 75 years. Last year, Psychiatrist Robert Waldinger, the director of the study, discussed three crucial findings to the secret of happiness in a new TED talk.
Waldinger begins his presentation by asking, “If you were going to invest now in your future best self, where would you put your time and your energy?” Although many common goals are to obtain money or fame, according to the study – the longest ever study on human development to date, it is good relationships that keep us happier and healthier.
Overall, the study found three big lessons about relationships.
Connections are healing, while loneliness is toxic.
People who are connected to family, friends, and their communities lead longer and more healthy lives. In contrast, people who are more isolated than they want to be than others are significantly less happy. Their health and brain functioning declines earlier, and they have shorter life spans. Sadly, reports Waldinger, 1 in 5 people at any one time in the USA report being lonely, and unfortunately that can lead to jumping into any relationship that comes.
Quality matters, not quantity.
Jumping into a bad relationship can be just as damaging as loneliness, as it is the quality of relationships, rather than quantity, that matters most. The study found that marriages with significant conflict were worse for happiness and health than divorce. Indeed, even more than physical issues, like cholesterol levels, relationship satisfaction predicts health. Those individuals who were most satisfied with their relationships at 50 were the healthiest at 80.
Additionally, those participants who were most happy with their relationships had higher pain tolerance, whereas those in unhappy relationships had their physical pain magnified through emotional pain.
Good relationships don’t just protect our bodies; they protect our brains.
The security of relationships can fight against the loss of memory and brain function decline. The study found that couples in their 80s with secure relationships have sharper memories for longer, while individuals who feel that they cannot count on their partner have earlier memory decline. That doesn’t mean that relationships have to be perfect in order to be beneficial; many of the couples studied bickered and argued regularly, but if they still felt that they could REALLY count on one another, the arguments didn’t take a toll.
The information found in this study is probably not anything we haven’t heard before. So, why is it so hard to remember and so easy to ignore? Robert Waldinger says it is because people tend to like quick fixes – things we can do immediately for instant success – but relationships are messy and complicated and hard work. They’re not sexy or glamorous.
Although it may seem easy to say that the people who are happiest in relationships just have them come easy, the study found the opposite to be true. The happiest people work hard to get relationships and establish them. The more you work for something, the better it is when you get it.
How can we establish and strengthen our relationships? Waldinger suggests replacing screen time with people time, livening up a stale relationship by doing something new together, and reaching out to the people who you haven’t spoken to in years.
After all, “The good life is built with good relationships.”
Written by: Melece, Master’s Student in Marriage and Family Therapy. Reviewed by Brian Willoughby, Ph.D.