What Makes A Good Life? – Lessons from the Longest Study on Happiness

In 1938, Harvard scientists began tracking the physical and emotional well-being of 724 men during the Great Depression through war, career, marriage and divorce, parenthood, grandparenthood and old age. Their findings uncovered startling insights into how to lead a healthy and happy life.

For over 80 years, Harvard’s Grant and Glueck study has collected and analyzed gigabytes of data, including comprehensive physicals (including brain scans), detailed questionnaires and in-person interviews of two populations: 268 well-adjusted male graduates of Harvard’s 1939-1944 classes (Grant study), and 456 intercity youth growing up in Boston from 1939-2014 (Glueck study).

They studied the participants' health trajectories and life journeys in general, reflecting on how they have changed, grown and faltered over eight decades – in what ways they triumphed or failed in their careers – from factory workers and lawyers to bricklayers and doctors - relationships and health. It opens a remarkable window onto the process of human psychological maturation.

The study began with the spirit of laying lives out on a microscope slide. “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. 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. Memory can be downright creative” as Robert Waldinger, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, who is the fourth director to lead this study, mentioned in his TED Talk.

According to George Vaillant, the Harvard psychiatrist who directed the studies from 1972 to 2004, there are two main conclusions from the Grant/Glueck studies:

  1. One: “Happiness is Love”. PERIOD. Put differently, “Warmth of relationships throughout life has the greatest positive impact on ‘life satisfaction’”. “The people who were the most satisfied in their relationships at age 50 were the healthiest at age 80.”  
  2. Two: “Finding a ‘mature adaptation style’ to cope with life’s up and downs - that does not push love away”. It turns out that a mature coping style also strengthens relationships because being able to handle emotional challenges gracefully removes barriers between people.

One: The clearest message that we get from this 80-year study is one thing – and it surpasses all the rest in terms of importance – “close relationships”, more than money or fame, are what keep people healthy and happy throughout their lives. Those close ties protect people from mental and physical decline and are better predictors of long and happy lives than social class, IQ, or even genes. That finding proved true across the board among both the Harvard men and the inner-city participants.

What is critical is to have “meaningful” connections – depth over breadth. It’s not just the number of friends you have, and it’s not whether or not you are in a committed relationship”, says Waldinger. “It’s the quality of your close relationships that matters”. The quality of relationships reflects – how much vulnerability and depth exists within them; how safe you feel sharing with one another; the extent to which you can relax and be seen for who you truly are, and truly see another.

This talent for human connection doesn’t mean being a “people person, an extrovert, or a salesman who belongs to six country clubs and has a Christmas-card list 200 names long”, Vaillant says. “What’s critical is allowing yourself to love others and being able to take people in – as in, ‘I’ve got you under my skin.’” Consider this rule of thumb: “Don’t try to think less of yourself but try to think of yourself less.”

Two: In essence, what matters is not how much hardship these men encountered, but rather how they responded to it. In other words, according to Vaillant’s ‘Model of Adaptations’, the way we unconsciously deal with pain, emotional conflict or uncertainty can spell either redemption or ruin. " ‘A mature adaptive style’ is analogous to the involuntary grace by which an oyster, facing an irritating grain of sand, creates a pearl.” Vaillant says.

So, what makes for a mature adaptive style? What are the seven major factors measured at age 50 that are powerful predictors of successful aging, both physically and psychologically? The six factors that separate, in Vaillant's words, the "happy-well" from the "sad-sick" at age 80 are: a stable marriage, a “mature adaptive style” to cope with life’s hardships, no smoking, little alcohol consumption, regular exercise, and maintenance of normal weight. For the inner-city men, education was an additional seventh factor. “The better educated the inner-city men were,” wrote Vaillant, “the more likely they were to stop smoking, eat sensibly, and drink alcohol in moderation.” At age 70, the inner-city men who graduated from college were just as healthy as the Harvard men (only 6% of the sample completed college).

Vaillant emphasized the role of these protective factors in healthy aging. The more protective factors are present, the more likely people are to live longer and happier lives. At age 50, 106 men had five or six protective factors, and by age 80, half of this group was among the "happy-well" ones. In contrast, of the 66 men with only one to three protective factors at age 50, none qualified as "happy-well" at age 80. In addition, they were three times more likely to have died 30 years later compared to those with four or more protective factors.

There may be a few things we can do to improve our chances. Above all, we need to create the conditions for a “mature adaptive style” that will most likely exist when we are not hungry, angry, lonely, tired or drunk. Moreover, feeling safe, secure and protected encourages us to engage in a more mature coping style. Beyond fostering relationships, we need to take personal growth seriously and work on our ability to process emotions and stress – so, as to remain available to keep nurturing important relationships. This is because, even in a loving relationship when we experience trauma such as the loss of a job, a parent or a child, we may end up "coping" in a way that pushes love away.

Which factors are surprisingly not so important? The study showed that the role of genetics and long ancestry, or cholesterol levels at age 50, proved less important to longevity than the level of satisfaction with relationships in midlife. What about money? Money makes a difference up to a certain point, after which there are diminishing returns. People in extreme poverty are less happy than those who are modestly affluent, but those who are modestly affluent are no less happy than the very rich.

In conclusion, the evidence is clear: the main predictor of healthy and happy aging rests on the existence of deep and meaningful connections – quality, not numbers. In the end, you may have all the money in the world, a successful career and be in good health, but without loving relationships, you won't be happy.

Much of what confers authority to these findings stems from the paucity of information. Few longitudinal studies survive over the long term as funding dries up and participants drop out. Through federal grants and private donations, Vaillant was able to fund surveys every two years, physical examinations every five years, and interviews every 15 years.

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