A Harvard study followed 268 undergraduates from the classes of 1938-1940 for 75 years, regularly collecting data on various aspects of their lives. The findings were reported in a recent book by the Harvard psychiatrist George Vaillant: Triumphs of Experience: The Men of the Harvard Grant Study.
Here are five lessons from the study pertaining to a happy and meaningful life. First, the most important ingredient for meaning and happiness is loving relationships. Even individuals with successful careers and good physical health were not fulfilled without loving relationships. Second, money and power are small parts of a fulfilling life; they correlate poorly with happiness. Those proudest of their achievements are those most content in their work, not the ones who make the most money. Third, we can become happier in life as we proceed through it, despite how we started our lives. Fourth, connection with others and work is essential for joy; and this seems to be increasingly true as one ages. Finally, coping well with challenges makes you happier. The key is to replace narcissism with mature coping mechanisms like concerns for others and productive work.
Robert Waldinger, who now heads the Grant Study that began in 1938, recently gave a TedTalk about it that has been viewed more than 6 million times. While the study only includes white males, it does include those from diverse socio-economic backgrounds. What the study showed unequivocally is that the happiest and healthiest people are those who maintained close, intimate relationships. Moreover, personal relationships are just as important to your health as diet and exercise.
“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 “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.
Noteworthy is that these findings overlap almost perfectly with what Viktor Frankl’s discovered about the meaningful life in his classic: Man’s Search for Meaning. Frankl says we find meaning through 1) personal relationships, 2) productive work, and 3) by nobly enduring suffering. The only difference is that Frankl doesn’t talk specifically about money, although no doubt he would agree that it is of secondary concern. Also noteworthy is how the findings of Vaillant and Frankl agree with modern happiness research. Here are just a few of the excellent books whose social science research supports these basic findings.