Lessons Learnt From The Longest Study On Happiness

So often advertisers tell us that buying more will make us happier. It's an ideology that doesn't sit well with us, so we decided to investigate.

As it turns out, we're not the only ones interested in the subject. For the last 75 years, researchers at the Harvard Study of Adult Life have been conducting what may be the longest recorded study on human happiness.

The research followed two groups of young men; the first were sophomore students at Harvard College, the second were boys from the poorest suburbs that were chosen specifically because they were from the most disadvantaged families in Boston in the 1930s.

So what did they find?

The lessons aren't about wealth, fame, working harder, or appearing physically attractive. Current head of the study, psychiatrist Robert Waldinger, says this:

“The clearest message that we get is this, good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period.”
- -

Not a great job, owning more things, having more money, or a great looking bum! (that's my words, not his). It's important to note that these relationships don't necessarily need to be romantic. They can be friendships or family ties, they just need to be strong, loving and supportive.

Waldinger says that they've learnt three big lessons about relationships:

Social connections are really, really good for us.

So much so, that loneliness kills. When we are socially connected to community, friends and family we will be happier, healthier and live longer.

It's the quality, not the quantity of these social connections that are so important. You may be in a relationship, but if it's not loving and supportive then it will have the opposite affect on your happiness. Waldginer says that living in the midst of conflict is terrible for your health and happiness. He points out that high conflict marriages which are devoid of affection will often be worse for our self-worth and satisfaction levels then the stress of divorce. But that living in a positive, trusting partnership was good protection against deterioration of mental and physical health.

“The people who were the most satisfied in their relationships at age 50 were the healthiest at age 80”
- - Psychiatrist Robert Waldinger

Good relationships even have the ability to buffer our levels of pain. Waldinger noted that the people in their 80s reported that on the days when they had physical pain, their moods remained happy and elevated. But for those in unhappy relationships this was not the case; on the days when they reported physical pain it was magnified more by emotional pain.

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The third lesson gleaned from the study was that good relationships don't just protect our bodies; they protect our brains. It turns out, that being in a secure, attached relationship in your 80s keeps your mind sharper. Those participants in the study that were in negative relationships were observed to experience earlier mental decline.

It doesn't always have to be smooth sailing.

So what makes a good relationship? Waldinger noted that it didn't always have to be harmonious, it's fine to bicker and disagree, as long couples and friends knew that they could truly count on each other in a time of need.

What does this have to do with climate change?

We learnt that money can actually buy happiness, up to a certain point.Once we are secure, and our basic needs are met, happiness levels tend to plateau. We also learnt that if you're going to spend money on happiness you should be spending it on experiential purchases, not products. If we tie these ideas in with the findings of Waldinger and his team, it only drives home the point that buying more things, and depleting the resources of the earth, all the while polluting it in the process of their production, will not make us happy. Being with the ones we love, and strengthening our relationships through shared experiences is key to a life well lived. Throw time in the great outdoors into the mix and you've got a recipe for success. Watch Waldinger's TED talk below.

All images: Shutterstock

Read this next: How We Can Use Mindfulness To Help Repair Climate Damage

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