While it’s said that money doesn’t buy happiness, how many of us actually believe that? Well, according to the Higher Education Research Institute, nearly three-quarters of millennials would disagree with this adage. And, in fact, a generation-spanning study by Harvard researchers – which began way back in 1938 and included a late president – suggests that the root of true contentment could be much closer to home.
What’s more, this ongoing research – all carried out as part of the Harvard Study of Adult Development – has revealed that happy people not only live longer, but they also resist the rigors of age more successfully. General satisfaction wasn’t an easy concept to monitor, though, given the obstacles that the project researchers faced. And while the team involved began by studying teenagers, they needed long-term observations for accurate results – meaning, of course, that the subjects would have to be followed into their golden years, too.
However, during the Harvard study’s long history, a lot happened that could have potentially ended the project. People dropped out or passed away, for instance, with the result being that the research was subsequently carried out on a dwindling number of volunteers. Yet even in the face of these limitations, the Harvard experts amassed an impressive amount of data on the subjects.
Given that the project has been going on for decades, moreover, it’s now on to its fourth director: psychiatrist and Zen priest Robert Waldinger. And in 2015 Waldinger would articulate his team’s findings in a TED talk that earned more than 27 million views after it was uploaded to YouTube. So, how exactly can you live a long and happy life? Well, following the results of the extensive study, Waldinger believes that he has the answer.
Before we discover what the data has uncovered, though, let’s take a look at the study itself. The project – which is considered to be the longest-running of its kind – aims to monitor participants from youth to seniority and, according to its website, therefore understand how “psychosocial variables and biological processes from earlier in life predict health and well-being in late life.” The research is also intended to explore “[which] aspects of childhood and adult experience predict the quality of intimate relationships in late life and how late-life marriage is linked with health and well-being.”
And, initially, the study focused on two distinct social groups – although both were solely made up of men. The first pool of volunteers – taking part in what researchers named the Grant Study – included 268 male sophomore Harvard college students. Many of those individuals, Waldinger revealed, later enlisted in World War II following their respective graduations between 1939 and 1944.
Meanwhile, the second volunteer pool was made up of 456 males from inner-city Boston who had poorer backgrounds than their college-going counterparts. This section of the project was dubbed the Glueck Study group, which was named after Harvard Law School professor Sheldon Glueck. Glueck was a pioneer in the study of juvenile delinquency and created a method for forecasting its occurrence that became known as the Social Prediction Tables.
And Glueck focused his research on this 456-strong group of boys, who were chosen because they all came from a disadvantaged start in life; some even lacked access to running water. Since they were working towards common goals, however, the Glueck and Grant projects were ultimately merged together to form the Harvard Study of Adult Development.
In the TED talk, Waldinger explains, “When they entered the study, all of these teenagers were interviewed [and]… given medical exams. We went to their homes, and we interviewed their parents.” Researchers then charted how these boys went on to become men with all sorts of occupations. In fact, one of them even reached the White House.
Yes, none other than the U.S.’ 35th President, John F. Kennedy, was once surveyed as part of the research. Four other subjects later ran for the Senate, while another went on to work in the presidential Cabinet. The late Ben Bradlee – a former editor of The Washington Post – was also a member of the study during his lifetime.
Sadly, though, further subjects had harder battles to fight – alcohol dependencies, for example – or they experienced mental illnesses such as schizophrenia. In the talk, Waldinger adds, “Some climbed the social ladder from the bottom all the way to the very top. And some made that journey in the opposite direction.” Unsurprisingly, too, many participants have died since the study began in 1938.
By 2017, in fact, there were just 19 surviving members of the original Grant project and 40 from the Glueck group. Nonetheless, the Harvard Study of Adult Development continues, as researchers no longer focus purely on the original testees. They’ve since incorporated the original volunteers’ families as well, bringing a total of 1,300 new participants into the study.
Waldinger reveals in his TED talk, “When about a decade ago we finally asked [the subjects’] wives if they would join us as members of the study, many of the women said, ‘You know, it’s about time!’” But the team didn’t stop there. After that, they began studying the founding members’ children – a cohort that the researchers refer to as the Second Generation – with many of these individuals having themselves reached middle age.
“Studies like this are exceedingly rare,” Waldinger proudly announces in the TED video. He continues, “Almost all projects of this kind fall apart within a decade, because too many people drop out of the study, or funding for the research dries up, or the researchers get distracted, or they die – and nobody moves the ball further down the field.”
Waldinger attributes the study’s success, then, to the dedication of researchers across generations – as well as no small amount of luck. But how did the team overseeing the project get meaningful data from the volunteers? Well, Waldinger reveals the answer to that question, too – although of course the methods used in the project have changed over the years as science has advanced.
“Every two years, our patient and dedicated research staff calls up [the participants] and asks them if we can send them yet one more set of questions about their lives,” Waldinger states. And this process needs to go way beyond simple Q&As, as human nature and recollection tends to cloud memory.
Waldinger says, “Pictures of entire lives – of the choices that people make and how those choices work out for them… Those pictures are almost impossible to get.” He continues, “Most of what we know about human life, we know from asking people to remember the past. And as we know, hindsight is anything but 20/20.”
“We forget vast amounts of what happens to us in life – and sometimes memory is downright creative,” Waldinger adds. In order to overcome this hurdle, then, researchers examined a wide spectrum of findings from both volunteer pools. And they accumulated their data by scrutinizing members’ medical records, interviewing them one on one, speaking to their relatives, taking blood samples and conducting brain scans.
In the video, Waldinger says that the researchers even videotaped the participants having deep conversations with their wives. And even though all of these undertakings may not have been cheap, the study has been amply funded over the decades. Philanthropist and businessman William Thomas Grant was the first individual to provide financial support for the project.
In 1936 the business mogul had created the W. T. Grant Foundation to fund social science research, and through that organization the Harvard Study of Adult Development received a $60,000 support fund in 1938. This wouldn’t be the last time that the foundation lent its support to the endeavor, either.
Indeed, the W. T. Grant Foundation gave the project yet another boost in 2010. You see, as a portion of the study’s findings are on hand-written documents, it’s imperative that the research is preserved for the future. And with this in mind, Harvard has begun digitizing its data with money from the foundation.
In fact, the team has already completed the digitization of the Grant Study, and they’re now hard at work to give the Glueck Study the same treatment. Research is still progressing, mind you, and in recent years the experts have been studying three key areas: social neuroscience, marriage and healthy aging.
What’s more, the two different control groups have apparently given researchers the keys to identifying potential sources of happiness. Childhood relationships, familial bonds and how young people react to situations, for example, all apparently indicate whether kids will become well-adjusted adults or not. In addition, the findings may help psychologists forecast future physical and mental health issues, among other things.
However, the Harvard researchers’ recent studies have also been focused on marriage. As people spend so much time with their partners, the team are monitoring how long-term relationships – and marriages in particular – are affected throughout the ups and downs of later life.
Finally, social neuroscience – or how our brain and behavior influence aging – is the last signature area on which the project has focused in recent years. This particular section of the study includes testing participant intelligence levels, taking brain scans and performing brain autopsies on volunteers who have passed away. And according to the Harvard Study of Adult Development’s website, the data produced as a consequence will result in an “unprecedented… resource for the study of social neuroscience.”
You may well be wondering what all this means, and what the Harvard researchers’ findings are. Well, as previously mentioned, Waldinger reveals all in his TED talk. And according to the director himself, his team may just have found the secret to a longer, healthier life.
Furthermore, it turns out that one of the previous project directors, a psychiatrist called George Vaillant, uncovered interesting information to this end. When Vaillant first joined the study’s team in 1966, it was as a researcher. Within six years, though, he was running the whole endeavor, and at some point he noticed a link among the participants: those in happy relationships were living longer.
Vaillant subsequently published his findings in his 2002 book Aging Well, in which he identified six common factors among healthy aging men in the Harvard study. These included smoking and drinking less, maintaining a balanced weight, regular exercise, superior coping mechanisms and strong relationships. For the inner-city Boston study subjects, increased education levels had also led to the participants cutting down on smoking, unhealthy eating and alcohol.
And in Aging Well, Vaillant emphasized the importance of one of these factors in particular. He wrote, “When the study began, nobody cared about empathy or attachment. But the key to healthy aging is relationships, relationships, relationships.”
Perhaps owing to Vaillant’s conclusion, then, the project has branched out into looking at the original subjects’ nearest and dearest. And relationships are a theme that Waldinger has kept the study focused on, too, as he would go on to explain to the TED talk’s audience.
In the video uploaded to YouTube, Waldinger asks, “What are the lessons that come from the tens of thousands of pages of information that we’ve generated on these lives? Well, the lessons aren’t about wealth or fame or working harder and harder. The clearest message that we get from [the] study is this: good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period.”
“We’ve learned three big lessons about relationships,” Waldinger continues. “The first is that social connections are really good for us – and that loneliness kills. It turns out that people who are more socially connected – to family, to friends, to community – are happier, they’re physically healthier and they live longer than people who are less well-connected.”
Waldinger adds, “The experience of loneliness turns out to be toxic. People who are more isolated than they want to be from others find that they are less happy, their health declines earlier in mid-life, their brain functioning declines sooner and they live shorter lives than people who are not lonely.”
When you consider that people are generally social animals, then, the findings make sense. Nevertheless, Waldinger argues, you can be married and still feel lonely – meaning the quality of a relationship is all-important, too. It seems, in fact, that strong bonds can make all the difference to a person in later life.
“The sad fact is that at any given time, more than one in five Americans will report that they’re lonely,” Waldinger continues in his TED talk. He adds, “Now, we know that you can be lonely in a crowd, or you can be lonely in a marriage.”
But there’s actually a second lesson to be learned from the Harvard research: discord within relationships can be detrimental to our physical well-being. Waldinger continues, “It turns out that living in the midst of conflict is really bad for our health. High-conflict marriages, for example, without much affection turn out to be very bad for our health – perhaps worse than getting divorced.”
And the third lesson that Waldinger cites is that healthy relationships aren’t just physically beneficial; they also protect our minds. It’s been claimed, you see, that the study participants with strong social bonds have experienced better memory retention. In addition, these subjects apparently felt less mood decline from the physical aches and pains that aging causes than those who have reported having less connection to others. Even so, it’s important to clarify what a “good relationship” means.
Waldinger says, “Those good relationships don’t have to be smooth all the time. Some of our octogenarian couples could bicker with each other day in and day out. But as long as they felt that they could really count on the other when the going got tough, those arguments didn’t take a toll on their memories.”
Furthermore, Waldinger argues that there’s no limit to how you can go about improving your current relationships. Basically, it’s about just prioritizing spending time with people and making the extra effort. You could reconnect with old friends and estranged family members, for example, or take time out for date nights with your partner. In any case, either try and make the best of your existing connections or forge new ones.
Yet while improving social and loving connections may be a simple answer to enduring happiness, it’s not necessarily an easy one. Waldinger concludes, “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.” Still, the pay-off is apparently worth it, as it seems that these strong bonds act as somewhat of a shield for both our bodies and our minds.