Secrets to a Happy Life: Lessons From the World’s Longest Scientific Study of Happiness

What’s the secret to living a happy and fulfilling life? The answer to this question is something Dr. Robert Waldinger and Dr. Marc Schulz have strived to answer through years of research. The two men are directors of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, the longest longitudinal biopsychosocial study of human development that started tracking individuals and their families in 1938 and is still in the works collecting data today. Together, they’ve shared invaluable insights in their new book, The Good Life: Lessons from the World’s Longest Scientific Study of Happiness

In addition to pioneering the world’s most comprehensive scientific study of happiness, Waldinger is a Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, director of the Center for Psychodynamic Therapy and Research at Massachusetts General Hospital, and cofounder of the Lifespan Research Foundation. His 2016 TEDxBeaconStreet Talk, “What Makes a Good Life,” has more than 42 million views, placing it in the top 10 TED talks.

Waldinger is not the only person fascinated with researching happiness. Dr. Arthur Brooks — host of the Atlantic podcast How to Build a Happy Life and column “How to Build a Life” — also studies human happiness. Dr. Brooks is the bestselling author of From Strength to Strength: Finding Success, Happiness, and Deep Purpose in the Second Half of Life. He is the Bloomberg Professor of the Practice of Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School and Professor of Management Practice at Harvard Business School.

After asking thousands of questions and taking hundreds of measurements from brain scans to blood work, Dr. Waldinger joined Harvard professor Dr. Brooks for a virtual Family Action Network event to help explore the infamous question: What’s the secret to happiness?

Relationships Are the Key to Happiness

After studying more than 724 families for the last 85 years, one of Dr. Waldinger’s most significant takeaways is that people who prioritize their relationships live happier and healthier lives. “People who stayed healthy and lived the longest were the people who had the warmest connections with other people as they went through life,” says Dr. Waldinger. “People who prioritized their relationships were not just happy, but they were also healthy. They were less likely to get type two diabetes, [heart disease and arthritis].”

Improving Happiness Through Relationships

The challenge with finding happiness through relationships is that, like physical fitness, social fitness takes constant effort and attention. 

“Your instincts lie to you when it comes to love,” says Dr. Brooks. “People push away love all the time. People avoid love all the time because it seems awkward. It doesn’t feel comfortable. And so they don’t make these investments [in their relationships].”

But, part of what Dr. Waldinger shares and his book explores is that investments in one’s relationships don’t have to be a grandiose effort. Even something as simple as texting, emailing or calling a friend daily to check can significantly improve your relationships and overall happiness. Connecting with and appreciating people is like an insurance policy to enhance your happiness in the moment and future. 

Some of the original participants in Dr. Waldinger’s study lived through the Great Depression and World War II. When asked what helped them through these difficult times, many mentioned something about their relationships.  

“We find that people rely on these strong relationships when hard times come, and they come to all of us,” says Dr. Waldinger. “And so it’s not just a way to make yourself happier; it’s a way to buffer yourself from the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, which are always heading our way.”

But What If You’re Shy?

Dr. Brooks explains that modern research on the neuroscience of loneliness explains that when you’re lonely, it impairs your executive function, and you do the opposite of what you need to do. What you should do at that moment to improve your happiness is get out of the house, do something active, or call a friend. However, most people resort to staying inside and further isolating themselves. 

Socializing with others is easier said than done, especially if you’re shy. However, Dr. Waldinger explains one of the best things you can do is join a club or volunteer for an organization related to something you care about, such as a gardening club or political campaign. 

“If you volunteer alongside other people, what you do is you collect a group of people with whom you already have something in common, a shared passion,” explains Dr. Waldinger. “And then you see those people again and again. And you start having conversations. Add that’s how friendships develop.”

It’s About the Quality of Relationships, Not the Number of Friends

A vital distinction Dr. Waldinger makes is happiness is not about how many friends a person has but the quality of connections. Shier individuals tend to need fewer friends, whereas extroverts gain energy and excitement from people. 

“It’s highly individual how many connections work for you,” says Dr. Waldinger. “We’re not claiming that everybody needs to go out and be a party animal. What we do think is that everybody needs at least one relationship where they feel the person has their back. We asked people at one point, who could you call in the middle of the night if you were sick or scared? List everybody. And most of our people could list a number of people, but some of our participants couldn’t list anybody. So we believe everybody, whether you’re shy or extroverted or somewhere in between, needs at least one relationship where you feel like that person has your back in times of trouble.”

Love is Not Only Found in Romantic Relationships

Having that one person who has your back at all times can be someone you’re romantically involved with, but you can find loving relationships outside of romantic partners. 

Dr. Brooks and Dr. Waldinger say there are three buckets of relationships: romance, friendship and family. The happiest people are the ones who have a balance in relationships among these groups, and it’s essential to nurture these relationships. But beyond those three buckets, Dr. Waldinger says having solid relationships at work is vital. People with work friends are often happier and more productive at their job. They’re also less likely to disengage or quit. 

Dr. Waldinger also suggests interacting with people you see regularly. Talk to people you see at the gym or individuals who take the same bus or train with you every morning. Exchange pleasantries with neighbors or delivery drivers. Get to know the barista at your go-to coffee shop. “Those connections, even though they’re casual, give us little hits of well-being when we cultivate them,” says Dr. Waldinger. 

Six Additional Things You Need For a Happy Life

Love and relationships are the most significant thing you can incorporate in your life that will lead to more happiness. However, there are six other things to include. 

The first four are related to your physical health. The happiest people don’t smoke, drink in moderation, eat well-balanced meals, and exercise. The fifth thing is to have a healthy coping mechanism for stress and anxiety, which includes knowing how to solve problems when facing challenges and when to ask for help when you need it. 

The sixth pillar of happiness is to keep learning. “We know now that people who stay cognitively engaged in the world as they get older stay off cognitive decline,” says Dr. Waldinger. “We used to think your brain didn’t grow or change except to decline as you got older. Now we know that’s not true. The more we stimulate ourselves through learning a new language, reading and talking with people … the more we stay engaged with the world, and the sharper our brains will stay.”

More from Better:

Jessica Braun Gervais is a Chicago-based freelance writer specializing in health, wellness, and fitness. She earned a B.A. in Journalism from Columbia College and has written content for various health and wellness institutions. Jessica Braun’s passion for wellness comes from her life as an elite athlete competing in Muay Thai kickboxing competitions across the country. In addition to sharing her expertise through writing, Jessica Braun also works as a group fitness instructor and personal trainer. When she’s not writing or training, Jessica Braun enjoys reading historical fiction novels, discovering new coffee shops, and cuddling with her cattle dog, Brady.

  Who We Are       NFP Support       Magazine       Programs       Donate