There are certain fundamental things in life that are more likely to make us feel happy. For example, if your basic needs are met through things like financial stability, good health, and a sense of fulfilment and purpose in daily life, then chances are you’ll probably have a generally happier and positive outlook.
There are countless more small and big things in life that we know are likely to lead to happiness. Even so, there’s some solid evidence that there’s one thing that stands out. That’s because it makes more of a difference to our long-term happiness than anything else in life.
What is it? Quite simply, it’s the quality of our relationships with people that matter the most to us — and we have some compelling research to back it up.
The 80-year study that measured happiness
In one of the longest experiments of all time, researchers at Harvard University have been tracking a group of men throughout their lives to establish just what makes some people believe they are happier than others. It began 80 years ago and is often referred to as the Grant and Glueck study (the Grant study began in 1939, followed by the Glueck study).
The research sought to monitor its test subjects’ health indicators — factors used to measure a person’s mental and physical health — using methods like detailed analysis of medical records and extensive interviews.
The mass of data was constantly analysed and re-evaluated over the years to determine what common factors shaped a person’s long-term happiness. After decades of monitoring, the researchers came up with some fascinating findings.
The Harvard Gazette, the university’s official news publication, put it as follows:
“The surprising finding is that our relationships and how happy we are in our relationships has a powerful influence on our health… Taking care of your body is important, but tending to your relationships is a form of self-care too.”
That’s according to Robert Waldinger, the study’s current director. He goes on to say that the level of happiness and satisfaction that someone feels in their marriage “has a protective effect on people’s mental health.” As an example, he cites research that found that people in their 80s who felt they had happy marriages “reported that their moods didn’t suffer even on the days when they had more physical pain — those who had unhappy marriages felt both more emotional and physical pain.”
Arguably one of the more extraordinary revelations of the study is the direct effect that good relationships have on physical health. Waldinger says that “those who kept warm relationships got to live longer and happier… the loners often died earlier.”
In other words, he adds: “Loneliness kills… it’s as powerful as smoking or alcoholism.”
What can we learn from the study?
The Grant and Glueck study has stood up to scrutiny over many decades. Amazingly, not only is the experiment still going, but since the surviving members of the original group are now well into their 80s and 90s, the study was broadened to include their descendants and their wives.
Despite the long time-span, the study’s findings remained fairly consistent. The key to happiness later in life doesn’t depend on money, fame, genetics, education, your job, your appearance, where you live or what car you drive. Yes, these things can have some influence on how we see life, but in the long-term, the one thing that seems to matter most is the quality of relationships.
There are some important lessons to be had here. People’s attitudes to happiness can vary considerably depending on their culture and upbringing. For example, researchers observed how the ideal of happiness in the Unites States tends to be associated with “elation, enthusiasm and excitement” while among Hong Kong Chinese happiness is more likely to be associated with calm and relaxation.
This means that our idea of happiness may be different to another person’s. In other words, happiness can depend heavily on perspective.
Money is a classic example of this. It’s something that is likely to contribute to a person’s wellbeing and comfort — yet it makes the most difference to people who have less money, while making less difference to people who have more of it.
What the study proves is that there are many things that can contribute to our sense of happiness throughout life, yet in the end, relationships still come out on top as the thing that matter most.
Given that healthy and happy relationships are universally important to all people, that’s hardly surprising.
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The CAREinMIND blog is delivered by On the Line. The views in each post do not necessarily reflect those of North Western Melbourne Primary Health Network.