Relationships - The Key to Happiness: Lessons From the Longest-Running Psychiatric Study

Patient Expert

We all know depression entirely too well. But what about happiness? What lessons can we learn to start doing the right things - or avoid doing the wrong ones? According to Robert Waldinger in a recent TED Talk:

We're constantly told to lean in to work, to push harder and achieve more. We're given the impression that these are the things that we need to go after in order to have a good life.

If this sounds like a life strategy you should strongly reconsider, you are absolutely correct, and Dr Waldinger has the data to back him up.

Dr Waldinger is the current head of the longest ongoing psychiatric study to date, the Harvard Study of Adult Development, popularly known as the Grant Study. I have written on this study in previous posts here on HealthCentral.

Back in 1937, scientists at Harvard began tracking two groups of young men, a cohort of Harvard students, and residents from Boston’s poorest neighborhoods. Miraculously, the study is still ongoing, with 60 of the original 724 still alive.

To pick up from Dr Waldinger’s TED Talk:

So what have we learned? What are the lessons that come from the tens of thousands of pages of information that we've generated on these lives? Well, the lessons aren't about wealth or fame or working harder and harder. The clearest message that we get from this 75-year study is this: Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period.

The first lesson about relationships, Dr Waldinger goes on to say is that social relationships are good for us and that loneliness kills. People connected to friends and family and community are happier and healthier and live longer.

The second lesson is the quality of our close relationships. Living in the midst of conflict is bad for our health, especially high-conflict marriages without much affection. Looking back, the people most satisfied in their relationships at age 50 were the healthiest at age 80. By contrast, cholesterol levels turned out to be an insignificant predictor.

The third big lesson is that healthy relationships don’t just protect our bodies - they protect our brains. These are the people who report that they stay sharp as they get older.

So let’s imagine we’re age 25 or 40 or 60. What can we do? Says Dr Waldinger:

Well, the possibilities are practically endless. It might be something as simple as replacing screen time with people time or livening up a stale relationship by doing something new together, long walks or date nights, or reaching out to that family member who you haven't spoken to in years, because those all-too-common family feuds take a terrible toll on the people who hold the grudges.

“The good life,” he concludes, “is built with good relationships.”

Check out Dr Waldinger's TED Talk.

Further reading:

The Happiness Challenge

Happiness: Why Are We So Bad At It?