The Single Most Important Lesson From Harvard’s Longest Study On Happiness

The most comprehensive study ever done, on well-being

Written by – Kiran Jain

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We, humans, are complicated. And happiness is one of the most complicated emotions we experience. Our life is often a pursuit to unravel its meaning.

Everyone has their own definition of happiness. We live, grow, and evolve, and as we do, our definition of happiness changes.

Harvard researchers analyzed gigabytes of scientific data to figure out what makes people truly happy.

Having worked as a science researcher for the last 4 years, I’ve now become a bit skeptical of the word “science”, as I see it being thrown around everywhere these days. Scientific research is often based on some assumptions which don’t translate well to generality.

Hence, when I came across this study, I had my share of my doubts. I cross-checked the assumptions they made, the sample size they took, and any biases that might have crept in their research.

Harvard began this research in 1938, and it’s now over 80 years old. It’s led by Dr. Robert Waldinger, professor at Harvard Medical School, who is the fourth director to lead this study in its entirety.

Over 75 years, they tracked the lives of 724 men, year after year, documenting their careers, personal lives, and health. No one had any idea whatsoever of how these students’ lives would turn out.

The participants, who were all teenage men when they first started, went on to pursue a myriad of careers — from factory workers and lawyers to bricklayers and doctors, one even becoming the President of the United States.

To collect authentic data, the academics designed detailed questionnaires and followed them up with intimate interviewing of the participants in their living rooms. They also collected the participants’ medical records, scanned their brains, and talked to their children and wives. They occasionally videotaped deep and honest conversations of the men with their wives.

I was convinced of their diligence. It didn’t just contain anecdotes and snippets. It was a goddamn blueprint of their actual lives.

As Dr. Waldinger mentioned, in his TED Talk:

“Pictures of entire lives, of the choices that people make and how those choices work out for them, those pictures are almost impossible to get. Most of what we know about human life we know from asking people to remember the past, and as we know, hindsight is anything but 20/20. Memory can be downright creative.”

Based on thousands of pages of information assimilated, the team inferred some simple but powerful lessons for a happy, fulfilled life.

Being Actually Connected With Our Loved Ones Is A Blessing

Which moments of your life do you cherish the most in nostalgia?

What memories bring a smile to your resting face?

People who are more connected to family, to friends, to the community, are happier, healthier, and live longer than people who are less connected.

For me, watching a daily show with Mom, engaging in a 1-hour fitness session along with my sibling, and discussing economics with Dad, happen to the be the small everyday moments that make me happy. Put in a call or two with close friends, and I’m happy with my day.

You might find playing with your toddler, or taking your pet for a walk, or cooking with your spouse, more enjoyable.

Having a meaningful connection is always more rewarding. Humans crave catharsis, and opening up to our loved ones helps us do that. It’s therapeutic.

The study also studied the other extreme: The case of the complete loneliness in relationships. It found that people who were more isolated from others were less happy, less healthy in midlife, and lived shorter lives.

Depth Over Breadth, Gives More Meaning

The second lesson the study inferred — Quality of relationships was more important than the number of relations one had.

The people who were the most satisfied in their relationships at age 50 were the healthiest at age 80 as per the study. A high-conflict marriage affected health worse than a divorce, in the long-run, as per their analysis.

How close and protective you feel with those around you is more important than how many people you are simply in touch with.

Good Relationships Aren’t Always Smooth

We often imagine good relationships to be smooth always. That’s neither necessary nor practical. I used to have this idealistic view for a long time.

It’s okay to fight and argue once in a while. Treat it like muscle training. You’ll have some bad days, but as long as you consistently work on your relationships, the greater the payoff.

The researchers stated some of the octogenarian couples would “bicker with each other day in and day out”, but any of those arguments didn’t take a toll on their lives because they knew they would keep each others’ backs in times of crisis.

Good Relationships Improve Memory And Creativity

Happiness isn’t the only child of good relationships. Those with meaningful relationships had sharper memories well into their 80s.

Those who couldn’t count on their close ones experienced memory decline earlier, as confirmed by the brain scans.

Stress has been attributed as a major cause of several brain-related problems, and this study reaffirms the correlation.

“In the end, only three things matter: how much you loved, how gently you lived, and how gracefully you let go of things not meant for you.” — Buddha

Get Started Now

Relationships might be messy and complicated and it requires hard work to maintain them. And this work is lifelong. It never ends. Working on them rarely provides any instant gratification.

You can always lunch out with your Mom next weekend. Or the one after that.

You can always call your old college mate tomorrow. Or the day after.

You can always thank that one mentor who changed your life, after a few days, when you get some time free.

Or you could choose to do those now.

In this quarantine, I took a 20-day challenge (I take up such challenges occasionally) of face-timing every day with good friends who I had lost touch with. This turned out to be one of my best experiments ever.

I’ve now planned to repeat this experiment, this time I will thank them for the contribution they had in my life.

Maybe you could take this experiment with me. Or you could take up something else, something smaller to start with.

You could consider replacing screen time with some family time, or doing some new and fun hobby together, or going for long walks.

Count and cherish your blessings. In the meanwhile, I’ll leave you with this quote by Mark Twain:

“There isn’t time, so brief is life, for bickerings, apologies, heartburnings, callings to account. There is only time for loving, and but an instant, so to speak, for that.”