Summary of the Harvard Grant Study

Loneliness by Hans Thoma (National Museum in Warsaw)

The longest running study of human development by Harvard researchers confirms that satisfying personal relationships are the key to human happiness. Moreover, personal relationships are just as important to your health as diet and exercise. (Note – I wrote about this study previously here.)

Robert Waldinger, who heads the Grant Study that began in 1938, recently gave a TedTalk about it that has been viewed more than 6 million times in the last few months. While the study only includes white males, it does include those from diverse socio-economic backgrounds. What the study show unequivocally is that the happiest and healthiest people are those who maintained close, intimate relationships.

“People who are more isolated than they want to be from others find that they are less happy, their health declines earlier in midlife, their brain functioning declines sooner and they live shorter lives than people who are not lonely,” Waldinger said in his TedTalk. Something about satisfying relationships protects us from some of the harm done by aging. Furthermore, other things associated with happiness, like wealth and fame, do not make much difference.  Instead what matters is the quality and stability of our relationships. So casual friends or abusive relationships don’t improve the quality of our lives. (Waldinger also has a blog about what makes a good life.)

While many of us want easy answers to the question of how to be happy, Waldinger says that says that “relationships are messy and they’re complicated and the hard work of tending to family and friends, it’s not sexy or glamorous. It’s also lifelong. It never ends.” But the evidence shows that that is how we find real happiness.

All of this reminds me of Sartre’s dictum that “hell is other people.” While this can sometimes be true, as a general pronouncement it is surely false. We are social animals and through engagement with others we encounter one of the very few things that gives our lives meaning.

Finally, there was a book published about the study in 2012 by the Harvard psychiatrist George Vaillant about which I wrote previously.

Triumphs of Experience: The Men of the Harvard Grant Study

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