What’s the secret to a happy life? Harvard Has Tracked it Down.

Group of senior looking in camera for a portrait

“Whoever said money doesn’t buy happiness doesn’t know where to shop,” once quipped Mae West. It’s an interesting statement. If our collective goals as individuals and as a society are to accumulate more stuff… houses, cars, holidays, clothes, the list is endless, surely money must be the source of all happiness and therefore it’s lack, the source of sadness?

The researches at Harvard1 dug a little deeper to find out what having a happy life really means. And by dug, we mean, over a period of 75 years, into the lives of two groups of men, in the worlds longest longitudinal study. Two studies to be precise.

The Grant Study1 was composed of 268 Harvard graduates from the classes of 1939-1944. The second group, the Glueck Study1 was made up of 456 poor men who grew up in the inner-city neighbourhoods of Boston. What the researchers were looking for were the psychosocial predictors of healthy aging.

“We were particularly interested in what psychosocial variables and biological processes from earlier in life predict health and well-being in late life (80’s and 90’s), what aspects of childhood and adult experience predict the quality of intimate relationships in late life, and how late life marriage is linked with health and well-being,” the report noted.

With any research covering this length of time there’s a need to have generations of researchers involved.  Since World War Two the multi generational team of researchers have been analysing blood samples, report surveys and one on one interviews with each of the men every two years. As science progressed the researchers were able to add in reports such as brain scans to the study data.

It’s an interesting socioeconomic division. Does being clever and wealthy make you happier than being poor and working class? One might reasonably argue that running profitably companies, speaking at keynote addresses, being revered and potentially feared by competitors and peers alike would make a man feel successful in life and therefore content. And what of the increased income, being able to buy what you choose, enjoy the creature comforts in life, surely this adds not only to ones comfort but to ones self esteem and self worth?

No. Surprisingly, none of these aspects increased the men’s overall fulfilment in life.  And certainly it wasn’t the biggest predictor of happiness. So what was?

“The clearest message that we get from this 75-year study is this: Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period,” said Robert Waldinger, director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development.

The Beatles it appears had it right all along. All you need is love. The study concluded that not only does having healthy, loving, connected relationships improve your central nervous system, keep your brain healthy for longer and reduce both your emotional and physical pain, it’s the reverse for those lacking love.

The study found that those who were lonely, who were missing close intimate relationships were more likely to have poor, declining health at an earlier age and were more likely to die younger.

“It’s not just the number of friends you have, and it’s not whether or not you’re in a committed relationship,” says Waldinger. “It’s the quality of your close relationships that matters.”

But there’s more.

Whilst not having an intimate connection to either friends or a partner is detrimental to ones health and emotional wellbeing. There are two foundational elements to wellbeing and happiness.  The second element is how you engage with your support network whilst undergoing stress or trauma in your life. If you push away the very people who love you, you’re as badly off as those in the first group, those with no emotional connection. George Vaillant, the Harvard psychiatrist who directed the study from 1972 to 2004 had this to say about the two foundation elements to predicting future happiness.

“One is love. The other is finding a way of coping with life that does not push love away.”

Whilst the data is clear that money, success, work achievements and physical health may bring other elements to your life, it doesn’t bring happiness. That is entirely to do with your ability to be in a loving relationship. Now that could be a lover or a partner or it could be a close intimate relationship with friends who you are able to be yourself with. A group of mates you hang out with but only connect to on a surface level isn’t going to cut it. And then it’s important that when you’re under fire that you can reach out and connect to the people you love. Being vulnerable can be challenging. Relationships can be challenging. But if you want happiness, the report is clear, you’re going to need to engage in intimate human connection to get there.

“Relationships are messy and they’re complicated,” says Waldinger. “But the good life is built with good relationships.”

And who doesn’t want the good life? And what a relief you don’t need to find the right shop to purchase it in.


[1] Harvard Second Generation StudyGrant Study and the Glueck Study. Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard Medical School.

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