Happiness. Fulfillment. Joy. Regardless of the term you prefer, it’s a beautiful yet at times elusive concept. So perhaps it’s time to ask yourself, “Am I looking for happiness in the right places?”
Time and again research has shown that many believe happiness results from some type of success—be that wealth, fame, getting that big promotion, attaining an advanced degree, or by whatever other metric you want to measure it. But according to findings from the Harvard Study of Adult Development, scientists have discovered the key to finding your own long-term happiness isn’t in any of those places. Instead, it’s probably right in front of you.
For the last 85 years, Harvard University has been investigating what makes people flourish through this unique study. And, to help you in your own quest for happiness, we had the privilege of sitting down with Dr. Robert Waldinger, the study’s director since 2002, to discuss these scientific findings. As the head of the study, he has had the opportunity to observe participants through both the ups and downs of life, and today we bring you key insights through this interview with him.
You are well known for running the Harvard Study of Adult Development. What is this study all about?
The study began in 1938 with 724 people from two groups: The first group consisted of male Harvard College undergraduates, and the second was a group of elementary and middle school-aged boys from disadvantaged and troubled families in Boston’s inner city. The idea behind the study was to focus on what goes right in our lives and examine the factors that contribute to positive developmental life paths. While the study began with boys and young men, we’ve added women over the years, starting with the women those young boys and men in our study eventually married. We’ve also expanded the study to include sons and daughters of our original participants. Today, we continue to collect data on more than 2,000 participants (more than half of whom are women), making this the longest in-depth longitudinal study on human life ever done.
What, in your view, is the single most important finding from the Harvard Study?
Having studied hundreds of people over their entire adult lives, we’ve found that the people who turn out to be the happiest and the healthiest are those who have good, warm connections to others. Indeed, these warm connections both make our lives feel good and improve our physical well-being. In fact, people who have warm relationships are generally less depressed and less likely to get diabetes and heart disease, they recover faster from illness, and they stay physically stronger and mentally sharper as they age.
How is it possible that warm relationships can shape our happiness and our physical health?
One of the best theories is based on the idea of stress. Stress is an inevitable part of all our lives. We experience it every day, and what we’ve found is that good relationships turn out to be stress regulators. To illustrate this for you, let's say that I have something upsetting happen to me during the day, and I find myself ruminating about it and unhappy. I can feel my body physically go into a fight or flight response. My heart rate increases, I might start sweating, and I'm just generally not feeling well.
But what if I go home at the end of my upsetting day, and I have somebody to talk to? Perhaps it’s someone I call on the phone or someone I live with, like my spouse or partner, my child or even a roommate. I can literally feel my body calm down as that fight or flight response subsides.
But what if I don't have anybody to go home to? What if there's nobody I can call? What we find is that people who are isolated don’t benefit from the stress regulators that we get from good relationships. Their bodies stay in fight or flight mode, leading to chronic stress and inflammation, and their hormones wear away their happiness and break down different body systems.
In the end, we’ve found that the happiness we get from warm relationships can actually help us live longer, healthier, happier lives. In fact, in our study, we’ve seen that the diseases of aging tend to happen later in happy people—and sometimes they don't happen at all. And while we can’t guarantee that any one person is going to be happier, stay healthier or live longer if that individual has better relationships, just as eating right and exercising regularly are key ingredients to maintaining your health, so are warm relationships. In fact, I’d go further and say that the opposite, loneliness, can be just as detrimental to your health as smoking or obesity.
If warm relationships are so important, what does all this mean for folks who are less sociable or introverted?
The short answer: We are all different in how much connection we want and benefit from. Chances are most introverts don’t want a lot of connections, and that’s perfectly normal. In fact, being with a lot of people could be exhausting. For this reason, introverts may need only one or two good relationships in their lives to realize the benefits that come from warm connections.
But even though some folks don’t need a lot, everybody needs at least a little bit of connection. The important task here is to figure out what’s right for you. And that involves really just tuning in to yourself and discovering whether or not you are energized or exhausted by being with a lot of people.
For me personally, a quiet conversation with one person is the most energizing thing I can do in the interpersonal realm.
Is it possible for an unhappy person to intentionally leverage warm relationships as a means to help improve life?
Yes, it is possible! I alluded to a concept in the last question that I call “social fitness.” Just like staying physically fit and maintaining your body, your social life needs maintenance, too.
So how do you assess your social fitness? It's really about checking in and saying, “Am I as connected as I would like to be to other people?” And, if not, assess what is missing. The reality is not all relationships give us the same thing. Some relationships offer us fun; while others give us support when we’re scared, hurting or worried; and yet others may offer us something practical, like a ride to the doctor.
The key is really checking in and evaluating what is absent from your social life and seeing what might be possible in terms of developing more of the relationships that give you what you need.
Many Northwestern Mutual clients are planning for retirement or already retired. Is there any way these folks can plan for happiness in retirement?
Our study has shown that as people transition into retirement, the number one challenge they face is the difficulty of maintaining and/or replacing the connections they made through work. This is important because retirees tend to have two big stressors in their lives (financial matters and their health), and warm connections are key to stress regulation. As you might expect, retirees who fare the best find ways of maintaining old connections and making new ones to help replace those that are lost as they transition away from their careers.
If you want to plan for happiness in retirement, my advice is two-fold. First, regardless of your life stage, start investing in your relationships today. Second, focus on finding a sense of purpose in retirement. Most likely your sense of purpose will need to come from a mix of activities like hobbies, volunteering, mentoring, and perhaps even working part time or on a consulting basis. Together, these activities give you something to do as a retiree and serve as a gateway to finding the new connections to help you live well in retirement.
How has your involvement in the study changed the way you approach life and your own pursuit of happiness?
First, it has helped me by having a better understanding that everybody has struggles in life. It’s easy to look at the world and think other people have these perfect lives. I have found it beneficial to know that there isn’t a person on the planet who doesn’t have struggles, and it actually makes me feel less alone.
Something else that’s changed is my own priorities. For example, I can choose to spend extra time taking on more work today, or I can see my friend whom I haven't seen in a month. So, I've become more active in taking care of my relationships, and it makes a big difference for me.
Where do you see the study going from here?
We’ll continue to collect more data. Right now, we are collecting more and more information from the children of our original group. While nearly all the original participants have passed away, their children are baby boomers, so we’re collecting information about what life was like during the pandemic, about how they use social media and more.
I also aim to make our data more broadly available to the research community so we can collaborate more and better. And, eventually, we will make the data publicly available because much of our work has been funded by the federal government.
If our readers remember nothing else, what is the single most important idea you’d like them to walk away with from this discussion?
It’s simple: The one choice you can make today that will help you lead a longer, healthier, happier life is to pay attention to improving your connections with others. It is such a good investment of your time, and it will pay off for years to come.
Robert Waldinger is not affiliated with Northwestern Mutual, and the views expressed by Robert Waldinger do not necessarily represent those of Northwestern Mutual or its subsidiaries.