What makes a happy life?



This is the question of questions for everybody. What can we do to really be happy in our lives? Is it a good job? Lots of money? Health? Or something else?

In a recent survey, millenials were asked about their most important life goals. Over 80% named “becoming rich” and over 50% “becoming famous” as their major life goal. Nowadays, we are told to lean into work, to push harder and always achieve more, which gives us the impression that these things are the ones we need to go after to achieve happiness in life.


But, are they?

The Harvard Study of Adult Development tries to answer the question of what keeps us happy and healthy as we go through life. Starting in 1938, it is the longest study about human life ever conducted. For over 75 years, researchers have analysed information about the lives of 724 men. Since 2003 Robert Waldinger, a psychiatrist at Harvard University, is the fourth head of the study. Studies over such a long period of time are very rare. Most of such long term studies fail due to drop outs of the subjects or dry up of the funding for the research.

The study has been following two groups of men, the participants of the Grant Study, composed of 268 Harvard graduates and the Glueck Study group, consisting of 456 men from Boston’s poorest neighborhoods. When they entered the study, they and their parents were interviewed and medically examined. Throughout the years, those teenagers grew up and entered all kind of professions. They became lawyers, bricklayers, doctors, one even became president of the United States. Some developed alcoholism or schizophrenia, some climbed the social ladder from the very bottom to the top, others went the opposite direction.

Over the years subjects were given questionnaires every two years, their health information was collected from their doctors every five years and they have been interviewed (also with their wives) every five to ten years.

The results are clear: it is not fame or wealth or working harder and harder that makes us happy. The clearest message from the study is that good relationships keep us happier and healthier. There are three big lessons about relationships we can learn from the study:

  1. Social connections are really good for us

Socially well connected people are happier and healthier and live longer as people with poor social lives.

  1. The quality of our relationships matter

It is not about the number of friends or the fact that we are in a committed relationship that makes us happy, it is about the quality. We all know that you can be lonely in a crowd, even in a marriage. But living in the midst of a conflicted marriage can be very bad for us. Sometimes it is better to leave than to stay in an unhappy relationship. On the other hand, good relationships are protective. The study has shown that people who were satisfied with their relationships at age 50 are the healthiest at age 80.

  1. Good relationships don’t just protect our bodies, they protect our brains as well

Being in a secure relationship where you can count on one another in your 80s is protective. The study has shown that those people’s memories stay sharper longer.

To most of us, the results make sense. But why are they so hard to get and so easy to ignore? Well, us humans really like a quick fix. We want to simply get something that make our lives good and stay that way. Relationships are hard work, you can’t just “get one”. When the study started, lots of the young men had the same wishes as the millenials have today: wealth, fame and high achievement. Over the years, their focus changed and the study reveals that those who are the happiest today have actively worked on replacing workmates with playmates in their 50s.

Concluding, over the past 75 years, we have seen that leaning into relationships is most important to live a long, healthy and happy life. Think about your work-life-balance today! And call your mum!