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How to Be Happy in Life

It is a commonly asked question in life: what makes people happy? One Harvard research team set out to answer that question. In a study spanning over 85 years, the Harvard Study of Adult Development is one of the world’s longest studies on happiness. Beginning in 1938, the study was comprised of 724 male participants from varying socioeconomic backgrounds. Every two years, participants were questioned extensively about their physical and mental health, careers, and family. Perhaps surprisingly, it wasn’t career success, financial security, or physical health that were the greatest indicator of happiness; it was fulfilling interpersonal relationships. It makes sense that relationships are one of the most important aspects of our lives because humans are, by nature, social creatures that depend on personal interactions and social support systems. The study found that one’s own individual social fitness and fostering relationships had a direct and long-lasting influence on participants’ health. Close relationships were found to help prevent mental and physical health declines and serve as a better predictor for life expectancy than either social class, intelligence, or genes. As participants aged, researchers found they tended to agree more that life is short, and people should do what makes them happy. This outlook coincided with participants being less affected by more trivial concerns and focusing on things that made a difference to their lives, which most commonly was their relationships. Over 40 percent of participants’ levels of happiness were determined by the life choices they made. Positive personal relationships, like marriage and friendships, were vital support systems that were proven to have a protective effect on participant’s mental health. In fact, relationship satisfaction at age 50 was found to be a much better predictor of a participant’s overall physical health than even their cholesterol levels.

Study Director Robert Waldinger and his wife Jennifer Stone (Credit: Rose Lincoln/Harvard Staff Photographer)

To foster relationships that help one to live longer, practicing social fitness is key. Social fitness involves examining relationships to see how they contribute to your life and well-being from seven key sources of support: safety and security, learning and growth, emotional closeness and confiding, identity affirmation and shared experiences, romantic intimacy, informational and practical help, and fun and relaxation. Each of these seven sources of social support plays a unique and crucial role in people’s social development. Not all relationships must be the most fulfilling from all seven perspectives, but it’s best to periodically audit one’s relationships to ensure that they are contributing to happiness and longevity, more positively than negatively. Also, not all seven perspectives will have the same importance to everyone; some may prioritize emotional closeness over learning and growth, while others prioritize safety and security over fun and relaxation. Due to the dynamic nature of this nearly nine-decade long study, researchers have ensured its longevity by expanding its scope even further. The wives and children of the original participants have been included to examine how different upbringings and family structures impact happiness and mental and physical health. As one of the longest ever studies on adult happiness, it draws important conclusions about interpersonal relationships and the affect they can have on us. Taking stock of how relationships can positively or negatively affect mental well-being enables people to make different choices and focus on relationships that bolster their mental and physical health. As musician Todd Rundgren sang in his 1972 hit “Hello It’s Me”, it’s the relationships you think of in your life that truly matter so much.

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