Robert Waldinger directed a 75-year study looking at what makes us happy. It boils down to three things, and they’re not the things we tend to think are going to make us happy. His TED Talk about the study findings challenges our most common life goals.
When you ask most people what would make them happy, their answers tend to cluster around achievement. Maybe they think they’d be happier if they were rich or famous. Or maybe they feel like success in their careers would bring them true happiness.
Unlike many studies on happiness, the Harvard Study of Health Development happened in real time. The researchers didn’t rely on memories of past events. Instead, this project—passed down from research team to research team for 75 years—followed a group of 724 men through their lives. They were interviewed every two years, and got complete physicals at every check-in.
When the project began, 268 of the men were sophomores at Harvard University, where they study took place. The other 456 men were inner city Boston high school students.
Waldinger was the study’s fourth director, and in his talk, he explains some of the interesting findings about happiness. He says happiness boils down to three things, but if you wanted to sum it up even more succinctly, you could say this: What really makes us happy is social connection.
Waldinger says there are three main lessons about what really makes us happy that come from this study:
- Social connections are critical to our mental and physical health. Whether it’s relationships with family, friends or neighbors, people who have social connection are happier and healthier. In fact, he says, loneliness is toxic. People who want these relationships but lack them are not only not as happy but they experience worse health.
- Your number of friends doesn’t matter. What matters most is the quality of your relationships, not the quantity. People with loving relationships in their lives, not just from spouses, but friends or other family members, had overall better health. Quality of relationships was a better predictor of later-life health than markers we tend to focus on, like cholesterol levels.
- Quality relationships are good for brain health. People who have quality relationships in their lives have better memory as they age. People without quality relationships were more likely to experience cognitive decline as they grew older.
He defines a quality relationship as one where you feel like you can count on the other person. He says that doesn’t mean never fighting. It means an overall sense of security.
When you hear these results, they sort of seem like a no-brainer, right? But when the study began, 80 percent of participants said being rich would make them happy. We know on some level that relationships are a key to happiness, but we tend to discount their full importance. Why? Waldinger gets into that in his talk, as well (at around 12:15, if you want to skip ahead). You can watch it in full right here: