What The 85-Year-Old Harvard Study on Happiness Found is Key to a Happy Life

Hint: It’s not what you think!

By: Lexy Parsons

What if the secret to happiness… wasn’t such a secret? What if the answer has been sitting under our noses for close to a century? What we’re referring to is the 85-year-old Harvard Study of Adult Development, an extensive and ongoing study that started in 1938, which aims to uncover what truly contributes to a fulfilling and joyful life. Following the lives of 724 men, and now their children, here’s what we’ve learned from the world-renowned “happiness” study, including what it means for our health and happiness.

What is The Harvard Happiness Study?

First, what is the Harvard Happiness study? Officially known as the Harvard Study of Adult Development, the “Harvard Happiness Study” is one of the longest-running research studies in the world. Initially starting in 1938, the study focused on two distinct groups: 268 Harvard University sophomores, including future President John F. Kennedy, and 456 young men from some of Boston’s most poverty-stricken neighborhoods. Over the years, the study has expanded to include the participants’ wives and children — about 1,300 individuals — offering a comprehensive view of human development across generations. About 20 of the original men still remain, with incredible wisdom to be offered!

So, what did the study “study” exactly? The primary goal was to identify the factors that contribute to a healthy and happy life. To accomplish this, the researchers collected a wide spectrum of data, including medical records, personal interviews, and questionnaires, tracking the participants’ physical and mental health, career success, relationships, and more.

As for the findings, they were profound!

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Key Takeaways From The Harvard Happiness Study

Relationships Take Precedence 

One of the most consistent and profound findings from the Harvard study is that relationships, good relationships, matter most. They keep us happier — even more than money and fame — and healthier, proving to protect against mental and physical decline. According to the data, quality relationships, such as a happy and stable marriage, are even better predictors of long and happy lives than social class, IQ, and even genetics.

Choose Carefully — Quality Over Quantity

When talking about the importance of connection, it’s not so much the number of friends or connections you have, but the quality of your connections and relationships that matters most. And this quality appears to be self-perceived. It doesn’t matter what others see, it’s about how you feel! If you’re not happy in your marriage or relationship, for example, it can be detrimental to your health. However, fostering loving and happy relationships appears to be protective. In fact, the data shows that the level of relationship satisfaction at age 50 was a better predictor of physical health than their cholesterol levels — those happy at 50 were more likely to be healthy at 80.

Loneliness Can Shorten Lifespan

While connection is a predictor of longevity, loneliness is a predictor of fatality. The Harvard study found that individuals who experienced greater social isolation reported lower levels of happiness, suffered from deteriorating health, and faced an increased risk of early mortality. Not to sound grim, but it’s true. Loneliness can trigger a cascade of adverse health effects, including higher stress, reduced immune function, and increased inflammation, all of which contribute to an increased risk of chronic diseases. Addressing loneliness by fostering meaningful social connections and supportive relationships can, therefore, play a crucial role in enhancing both mental and physical health, ultimately extending one’s lifespan.

Social Connections Matter

In addition to fostering a supportive and nurturing inner circle, it’s also important to nourish your “outer circle” by maintaining healthy social connections. Whether it’s extended family, friends, co-workers, or community members, the study found that those who are more socially connected are happier, healthier, and more likely to live longer than those who have fewer social connections. In short, maintaining healthy social connections can help to extend our lifespan!

Movement Matters Too

In addition to maintaining social connections, the nearly century-long study found that exercise was a predictor of health and happiness among the men. Those who avoided a sedentary lifestyle and maintained movement appeared to benefit the most, living the longest and healthiest lives.

Maintaining Healthy Habits

As for other healthy habits, George Vaillant, a researcher and psychiatrist from the study, observed several protective health habits among the men: maintenance of a healthy weight, healthy coping mechanisms, and avoidance of smoking and alcohol abuse. The takeaway is that our daily routine matters too, it’s not just about who we spend our time with, but also how.

Putting This Into Practice

Based on insights from the Harvard study, here’s how we can support our health, happiness, and longevity. 

Nourish Your Healthy Relationships

Nourishing your current relationships is a great way to support your health and happiness, considering it’s such a strong predictor of overall well-being. Whether it’s a partner, friend, or family member, consider investing more time and energy into the relationship to help make it stronger and more meaningful. Maybe you plan a getaway, surprise them with random acts of kindness, or simply say “I love you” more.

Don’t Be Afraid to Cut Ties

If a relationship isn’t serving you, consider parting ways. Sometimes we need space to grow on our own so we can come back together, and other times, our paths have simply gone in different directions. Though hard, staying in an unhappy relationship can do more harm than good when it comes to your health. So, in the name of health and happiness, know that walking away when necessary and setting boundaries is important.

Stay Active

Maintaining an active lifestyle, whether it’s walking more or incorporating more FitOn workouts into your weekly routine, can help enhance both your mental and physical health. Considering exercise has been shown to reduce stress, improve metabolism and sleep, support mood, and reduce the risk of illness, it’s no wonder the happiest and healthiest men from the study were active. Find whatever movement works best for you, and make this a priority in your life!

Cultivate a Community

Outside of your immediate relationships — those family and friends you have on speed dial — it’s important to cultivate a community full of individuals who provide varying means of support. According to data, in order to feel truly secure and fulfilled, the types of relationships we have are important. This includes having people in your life that you can turn to for advice or information, rely on no matter the ask or situation, laugh and connect with, feel seen and understood by, and learn and grow from. Our needs are always changing, so it’s important to continually evaluate where we’re at, and modify as needed.

The Secret To Happiness, Unleashed

The secret to health and happiness isn’t fame, money, fancy cars, or unlimited resources. It’s something much more simple, that we’ve been sitting on for nearly 85 years! With compelling evidence and tried-and-true data, it’s clear that health and happiness lie in our connections with others. By prioritizing healthy relationships, cultivating a supportive community, and maintaining healthy lifestyle habits like staying active, we can lead happier, healthier, and more fulfilling lives. Use this study to inspire you to phone a loved one, hug someone, or say I love you to those who matter most.