Growing up, we have big dreams to become something. An astronaut, a musician, a designer, a firefighter. As children, we imagine a life built around a career, even if we don’t really understand that’s what we’re doing. After we graduate from college, it’s time to realize those dreams. Posturings of fame and fortune surround us as we make photocopies and get coffee for our bosses. We say, if I was important and wealthy, I’d be happier than I am doing data entry.
It’s not a far fetched idea, that achievement will make us feel fulfilled. Hard work paying off is a satisfying feeling. To what cost, though? Eighty hour work weeks with no home life to speak of, a social life that’s hanging on by a slim thread, it doesn’t sound so great when you look at it that way.
Unfortunately, we don’t actually look at it that way until we’re older and wiser. One day the work is finally done and retirement is here. What happens next? Achievement has or has not been accomplished. And the rat race is over. Now, what makes us happy? Research from the Harvard Study of Health Development shows that what really makes people happy, isn’t all your childhood dreams realized after all. It’s people.
Social connections are proven to be important factors in our overall health. Those with solid relationships have better physical health and higher brain function in old age. Loneliness, on the other hand, is found to be highly detrimental, having the inverse effects as those with solid relationships.
It’s not necessarily proximity that makes for a healthy relationship. Expert Robert Waldinger, who runs the Harvard study, notes that it’s possible to be lonely in a bad marriage, or in a crowded city. The real answer lies in the quality of relationships. That is if your loved ones are people you can count on most, even if you quarrel like a couple of grumpy old cats, then you’ll be happiest. Trustworthy, reliable, close relationships are most important.
Unlike many studies on happiness, the Harvard Study of Health Development happened in real time. The researchers didn’t rely on memories of past events. Instead, this project—passed down from research team to research team for 75 years—followed a group of 724 men through their lives. They were interviewed every two years and got complete physicals at every check-in.
The study also concluded that you only need a few good relationships. Having a number of distant friends doesn’t have the same effect as a small, tight circle. It’s better, still, if you’ve maintained close friendships throughout your life. The study shows that those who had close friendships at age 50, had better cognitive health at age 80. But it’s never too late to make life changing friendships. You’ll live longer, and you’ll be happy for it, too.
When you hear these results, they sort of seem like a no-brainer, right? But when the study began, 80 percent of participants said being rich would make them happy. We know on some level that relationships are a key to happiness, but we tend to discount their full importance. Why? Waldinger gets into that in his talk, as well (at around 12:15, if you want to skip ahead). You can watch it in full right here: