Lessons From the Longest Study on Happiness

Mauricio Wajngarten, MD


July 12, 2023

We are all searching for happiness. But how do we achieve it? What are its greatest determinants?

The Harvard Study of Adult Development may be the most comprehensive study ever conducted, as it followed its participants for their entire adult lives. The study was started in Boston in 1938 and has already covered three generations: grandparents, parents, and children, who are now considered "baby boomers." It analyzed more than 2000 people throughout 85 years of longitudinal study.

In January, Robert Waldinger, MD, the current director of this incredible study, published the book The Good Life: Lessons From the World's Longest Scientific Study of Happiness, co-authored with the study's associate director, Marc Schulz, PhD.

By following this large population for more than eight decades, the study uncovered the factors most correlated with well-being and happiness. Here, I have summarized some of the authors' main concepts.

Most Important Factors

The study's happiest participants had two major factors in common throughout its 85 years: taking care of their health and building loving relationships with others.

It seems obvious that being in good health is essential to live well. However, to some surprise, researchers determined that good relationships were the most significant predictor of health and happiness during aging. Other authors have confirmed this finding, and research has sought to analyze the physiological mechanisms associated with this benefit.

Professional Success Insufficient

Professional success on its own does not guarantee happiness, even though it may be gratifying. The study revealed that those who were happiest were not isolated. In fact, the happiest people valued and fostered relationships. Levels of education and cultural awareness, which tend to be higher among those with higher salaries, were also important factors for adopting healthy habits (promoted more often as of the 1960s) and for better access to healthcare.

Social Skills

Loneliness is increasingly common and creates challenges when dealing with stressful situations. It is essential to have someone with whom we can vent. Therefore, Waldinger recommends assessing how to foster, strengthen, and broaden relationships. He calls this maintaining social connections and, just as with physical fitness, it also requires constant practice. Friendships and relationships need regular commitment to keep them from fizzling out. A simple telephone call can help. Participating in activities that bring joy and encourage camaraderie, such as sports, hobbies, and volunteer work, may broaden the relationship network.

Happiness Not Constant

Social media almost always shows the positive side of people's lives and suggests that everyone lives worry-free. However, the truth is that no one's life is free of difficulties and challenges. Social skills contribute to resilience.

It is never too late for a turnaround and for people to change their lives through new relationships and experiences. Those who think they know everything about life are very mistaken. The study showed that good things happened to those who had given up on changing their situation, and good news appeared when they least expected it.

This study highlights the importance of having social skills and always cultivating our relationships to help us become healthier, overcome challenging moments, and achieve the happiness that we all desire.

We finally have robust evidence-based data to use when speaking on happiness.

This article was translated from the Medscape Portuguese Edition.

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