Back in 1938, researchers at Harvard University began a study to try to find the keys to a happy, healthy life. Now, after 80 years of study, the scientists say there is conclusive evidence about the primary factor that contributes to a long, meaningful existence.
I’ll get to the answer in a moment, but first more about the study.
They started with 724 Harvard sophomore men (women were not allowed at Harvard in 1938) and followed them throughout their lives. Later they added young people from the poorest sections of Boston.
Over the years the researchers repeatedly questioned the participants, reviewed their medical records, analyzed blood samples and scanned their brains. When people in the study died, the researchers continued with some 2,000 children of the men.
What they found surprised them.
Yes, genetics is important along with exercise and diet. Drinking too much and smoking will also affect quality of life. But over and over researchers found that the most important factor to a happy, healthy life is good relationships.
“Good relationships keep us happier and healthier—period,” said Dr. Robert Waldinger, director of the study. “Taking care of your body is important, but tending to your relationships is a form of self-care too. That, I think is a revelation.”
It also runs counter to what the researchers initially thought they would find. Early on, they thought physical constitution, intellectual ability and personality traits would determine adult development.
George Vaillant, who led the study from 1972 until 2004, said, “When the study began, nobody cared about empathy or attachment. But the key to healthy aging is relationships, relationships, relationships.”
Those include the ties a person has with a spouse or significant other, children and extended family and community. Waldinger says we all want to be alone sometimes, but a solitary existence just isn’t healthy. “Loneliness is toxic,” he said. Lonely people live shorter lives.
We are all advised to get our cholesterol checked regularly as we age, and that is important, but we might also want to do the same for our relationships. When the researchers examined study participants at age 50 they found, “It wasn’t their middle age cholesterol levels that predicted how they were going to grow old, it was how satisfied they were in their relationships,” Waldinger said.
So, why don’t we concentrate more on relationships? Waldinger said it’s because it is difficult. “What we really like is a quick fix… something that we can get that will make our lives good and keep them that way. Relationships are messy and they are complicated. It’s life-long. It never ends.”
This study is believed to be one of the longest continuing research projects ever conducted on well-being, and it is still going on. Waldinger willingly admits that the findings simply confirm a belief that many say is as old as the hills; our strong ties to our fellow human beings give us a greater reason for living, shelter us during difficult times and help propel us into longer and happier lives.