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What’s the Secret to a Happy Life? It’s Not What You Think

Group of seniors enjoying wine and food in back yard

When you’re in your 20s and just starting out, money and fame may seem the key to a happy life. But as you age, that viewpoint changes considerably. The real secret, according to a Harvard study that’s been going on since the 1930s, has nothing to do with your bank account or your career.

“The clearest message that we get from this 75-year study is this: Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period,” the study’s current director, Robert Waldinger, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, said in a recent TED Talk that’s been viewed more than 7 million times.

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The Harvard Study of Adult Development has been going on since 1938, when it began tracking 724 men. One group were sophomores at Harvard when the study began; a second group lived in Boston’s poorest neighborhoods, many in tenements. About 60 of the original 724 are still alive, most in their 90s, still participating in the study.

At the outset of the research, the men (who were then teenagers) were interviewed and given medical exams. Through the years, they went on to become “ factory workers and lawyers and bricklayers and doctors,” says Waldinger. One of the Harvard students, John F. Kennedy, became president of the United States.

The study continues today. Every two years, the men are contacted by researchers to answer questions about their lives, as well as have brain scans and blood tests. Waldinger, who is the study’s fourth director, recently expanded the scope to include the wives and children, including videotaping couples in their homes and asking them about nearly every facet of their lives, “even day-to-day spats,” reported the New York Times.

Over the years, the study has revealed that the single most important thing you can do to age well physically is to avoid smoking; that aging liberals had longer and more active sex lives than conservatives; that alcohol was the primary cause of divorce among men in the study, and that alcohol abuse often preceded depression, not the other way around, the Times noted.

The research doesn't prove that happier relationships cause better health. It could be that those who are happier and healthier are more likely to make and maintain satisfying relationships, while those struggling with health problems are more likely to become isolated and depressed.

Still, researchers are confident that strong social bonds play an important role in protecting our long-term physical and mental health. Here are some of the lessons Waldinger said they have learned:

Keep making friends after you retire. Those who were the happiest in retirement were the people who had actively worked to replace workplace friends and colleagues with new friends.

Social connections are really good for us, and loneliness kills. “People who are more socially connected to family, to friends, to community, are happier, physically healthier, and they live longer than people who are less well connected,” Waldinger said. People who are more isolated are less happy and have shorter lives.

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It’s the quality of your close relationships that matters. “High-conflict marriages, for example, without much affection, turn out to be very bad for our health, perhaps worse than getting divorced,” he said. Having good, warm relationships was protective of our health.

Those most satisfied in their relationships at age 50 were the healthiest at age 80. For example, happily partnered people who suffered from physical pain were able to still keep their happy mood; those in an unhappy relationship reported their emotional pain magnified their physical pain.

A secure relationship helps your brain. Those in relationships where they felt they could count on the other person in time of need had memories that stayed sharper longer. Even the octogenarian couples who bickered daily remained sharp “ as long as they felt that they could really count on the other one when the going got tough,” said Waldinger.

Photo: kali9/iStock

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