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What makes a good life? Lessons from the longest study on happiness

Waldinger with his wife Jennifer Stone


What keeps us happy and healthy as we go through life? If you think it is fame and money, you’re mistaken. Those who kept warm relationships got to live longer and happier, and loners often died earlier.


In a research series aimed to tackle aging issues, scientists began tracking the health of 268 Harvard sophomores in 1938 during the Great Depression, looking for clues to leading healthy and happy lives.


Close relationships, more than money or fame, are what keep people happy throughout their lives, the study revealed. Those ties protected people from life’s discontents, helped to delay mental and physical decline, and were better predictors of long and happy lives than social class, IQ, or even genes.


“The people who were the most satisfied in their relationships at age 50 were the healthiest at age 80,” said Robert Waldinger, professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, who led the study. Loneliness kills,” he said. “It’s as powerful as smoking or alcoholism.”


The study showed that the role of genetics and long-lived ancestors proved less important to longevity than the level of satisfaction with relationships in midlife. The research also debunked the idea that people’s personalities “set like plaster” by age 30 and cannot be changed.


Researchers found a strong correlation between men’s flourishing lives and their relationships with family, friends, and community. Several studies found that people’s level of satisfaction with their relationships at age 50 was a better predictor of physical health than their cholesterol levels were.


“It was how satisfied they were in their relationships. The people who were the most satisfied in their relationships at age 50 were the healthiest at age 80,” said Waldinger in TED Talk, in 2015.


“Good relationships don’t just protect our bodies; they protect our brains,” said Waldinger. “And those good relationships, they don’t have to be smooth all the time. Some of our octogenarian couples could bicker with each other day in and day out, but as long as they felt that they could really count on the other when the going got tough, those arguments didn’t take a toll on their memories.”

“Those who were clearly train wrecks when they were in their 20s or 25s turned out to be wonderful octogenarians,” he said. “On the other hand, alcoholism and major depression could take people who started life as stars and leave them at the end of their lives as train wrecks.”


Psychiatrist George Vaillant, who led the study from 1972 until 2004, emphasized the role of relationships, and came to recognize the crucial role they played in people living long and pleasant lives.


“When the study began, nobody cared about empathy or attachment. But the key to healthy aging is relationships, relationships, relationships,” said Vaillant.


Vaillant’s research highlighted the role of these protective factors in healthy aging. The more factors the subjects had in place, the better the odds they had for longer, happier lives.


Over the years, researchers studied the participants’ health trajectories and their broader lives, including their triumphs and failures in careers and marriage, and the finding have produced startling lessons.


Part of a study found that people who had happy marriages in their 80s reported that their moods didn’t suffer even on the days when they had more physical pain. Those who had unhappy marriages felt both more emotional and physical pain.


According to the study, those who lived longer and enjoyed sound health avoided smoking and alcohol in excess. Those with strong social support experienced less mental deterioration as they aged.


Waldinger, who is a Zen priest, said he practices meditation daily and invests time and energy in his relationships.


“It’s easy to get isolated, to get caught up in work and not remembering, ‘Oh, I haven’t seen these friends in a long time,’ ” Waldinger said.


Since aging starts at birth, people should start taking care of themselves at every stage of life, researchers said.


The best advice I can give is ‘Take care of your body as though you were going to need it for 100 years,’ because you might,” Waldinger said.


Waldinger says having mature mechanisms to cope with life’s ups and downs, and enjoying both a healthy weight and a stable marriage also helped people lead long happy lives.


Link to TED Talk video






After following the surviving Crimson men for nearly 80 years as part of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, researchers collected data on their physical and mental health, in what is one of the world’s longest studies of adult life. Of the original cohort recruited as part of the Grant Study, only 19 are still alive, all in their mid-90s. Among the original recruits were eventual President John F. Kennedy and longtime Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee. Women weren’t in the original study because the college was then all male.


Scientists eventually expanded their research to include the men’s 1,300 offsprings in their 50s and 60s, to find out how early-life experiences affected health and aging over time. Some participants went on to become successful businessmen, doctors, lawyers, while others ended up as schizophrenics or alcoholics, but not on inevitable tracks. More than a decade ago, researchers began including wives in the studies.




“Loneliness kills. It’s as powerful as smoking or alcoholism.”

— Robert Waldinger





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