This Is What You Actually Need To Be Happy, According To Science

It's not balloons but they might help. Africa Studio/Shutterstock

What is the secret to happiness? It's a question philosophers have been debating since the days of Socrates. Now, science may have the answer. An 80-year longitudinal study by a team of scientists at Harvard University has found that a network of strong relationships (not money or success) is the real key to a long and happy life.

"The people who were the most satisfied in their relationships at age 50 were the healthiest at age 80,” said Robert Waldinger, director of the study and a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, during a TED Talk.


So it turns out Huey Lewis and the News had it right all along. 

The Harvard Second Generation Study began in 1938 when a team of researchers began tracking the lives and health of 268 (all male) Harvard sophomores – including future Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee and future US president John F. Kennedy. In the years since, the number of recruits has expanded to include their wives, 456 Boston inner-city residents and their wives, and 1,300 of the Harvard students' progeny, who will now be in their 50s and 60s. The intention with the latter was to explore the ways life's early experiences affect a person's health later in life. 

During the study, researchers kept track of the participants' health and their lives in general, including their failures and successes in career and love, through medical records, interviews, and questionnaires. In the study's early years, scientists also (bizarrely) collected info on the participants' brow bridges, moles, and handwriting. Later on, when the technology became available, the team used DNA testing and MRI scans to paint a more accurate picture of each participant's health, which goes to show just how far science has come during the course of the study. 

After 80 years, the study has found that wealth, genetics, social class, and IQ are just not as important to longevity and happiness as a person's relationships with their friends, family, and community – a result that would have shocked the original researchers.


“When the study began, nobody cared about empathy or attachment,” George Vaillant, a psychiatrist who led the team from 1972 to 2004, explained. “But the key to healthy aging is relationships, relationships, relationships.” 

In fact, relationships are so important when it comes to healthy living that relationship satisfaction at 50 was a better indication of physical health at 80 than cholesterol levels. 

“Taking care of your body is important, but tending to your relationships is a form of self-care too. That, I think, is the revelation,” Waldinger added. 

And his best piece of advice after years of studying health and aging? "Take care of your body as though you were going to need it for 100 years, because you might.”


TED Talk / Robert Waldinger


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