So what makes a person truly happy?

What would you do if you could go back in time to make your life just a little bit happier today? Would you make different choices, act differently?At some point, we’ve all been at the ‘what if’ crossroads — and wondered if we would be happier now if we had made some changes when we were younger.


Well, you don’t need to go back.  Harvard University has done that for you. In possibly the longest-ever research project, the Harvard Study of Adult Development got together 724 teenaged men and observed them over 75 years.  The project, which started in the 1930s and still continues (albeit with a reduced number of respondents), tries to answer just one question: What makes a person truly happy?



In a more recent survey among millennials, 80 per cent of them thought being rich would make them happy, while another 50 per cent said being famous would.  “The answer is as old as the hills,” says psychiatrist Robert Waldinger, the fourth director of the Harvard study, at a talk. “Good relationships keep us happier and healthier.”


The Harvard study finds that first, social connections are really good for us, while loneliness can kill. “People who are more socially-connected — to family, friends or community – are happier, physically healthier and live longer than people less connected,” says Waldinger. “People who are more isolated than they’d want to be, find that they are less happy, and their physical and brain functions decline sooner.”


Second, it’s not the number of relationships that you have, but their quality that matters.  “Living in the midst of conflict can be very bad for our health, and high conflict marriages, with no affection, can be worse than divorce,” says Waldinger.  And last, good relationships don’t just protect our bodies, they protect our brains too.


Waldinger certainly knows what he’s talking about.  It is because the Harvard researchers have had the rare opportunity to go back and verify all of this with their subjects.  “Once the subjects turned 80, we wanted to look back at them in midlife and see if we could predict who would grow to be happy, healthy octogenarian,” says Waldinger.  The meticulous (and copious notes) taken of the respondents – interviews, answers to detailed questionnaires, even medical records collated over the years – helped.  The men who were most satisfied in their relationships at age 50, were the ones happiest and healthiest at 80.  “Good, close relationships buffer us from the slings and arrows of getting old,” says Waldinger.


They also keep us smarter, sharper and less prone to physical pain. “Those who were securely attached to another person in their 80s, even if that relationship wasn’t always smooth, reported a sharper memory,” says Waldinger.  Being secure in a relationship also made physical pain more bearable, while those who were less connected, found their physical pain magnified by their emotional one.


The study also underscores that happiness does not depend on social, class, or economic circumstances. Two specific kinds of respondents were selected when the study first began. The first was a group of Harvard sophomores (those in their second year at college), while the second was a bunch of teenaged boys from the poorest, most disadvantaged neighbourhoods of Boston. The project followed them year after year, as they embarked on their lives and various careers, checking back for updates every two years. The eventual findings were the same, across the board.


Clearly, it’s not about fame, wealth or high achievement, say Waldinger. People need to lean into relationships. In real terms, and in today’s day, this might mean replacing screen time with people time; livening up a relationship by doing something new or different, like going on date nights; or even reaching out to old friends and relatives.Happiness is always just within reach.


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