Back in 1938, scientists at Harvard University embarked upon an ambitious longitudinal study to track the health of 724 people. The group was a combination of Harvard sophomores and low-income teenage boys in Boston. The goal was simple: Follow them from childhood to their senior years to determine what makes a person happy and healthy.
Today, 85 years later, the Harvard Study of Adult Development is considered one of the world’s longest-running studies of adult life and human happiness. Researchers in the study collected detailed personal information as well as DNA samples and brain scans. The study was ultimately expanded to include more than 1,300 offspring of the original participants.
Over the course of nine decades (and three generations), one key finding emerged: healthy relationships are a better predictor of happiness than wealth or fame. The surprising finding is that our relationships and how happy we are in our relationships has a powerful influence on our health, too. A wealth of research shows that people who have close-knit connections live longer, are better protected against stress and depression and even less susceptible to inflammation and disease.
Researchers found a strong correlation between participants' flourishing lives and their relationships with family, friends, and community. Several studies found that people’s level of satisfaction with their relationships at age 50 was a better predictor of physical health than their cholesterol levels were.
Psychiatrist George Vaillant, who joined the team as a researcher in 1966, led the study from 1972 until 2004. Trained as a psychoanalyst, Vaillant emphasized the role of relationships, and came to recognize the crucial role they played in people living long and pleasant lives.
“When the study began, nobody cared about empathy or attachment. But the key to healthy aging is relationships, relationships, relationships." — George Vaillant
The body of research continues to discover what makes us happy. In addition to healthy relationships, here are three more key elements that have been scientifically linked to happiness.
Altruism. There is a Chinese saying that goes something like this: “If you want happiness for an hour, take a nap. If you want happiness for a day, go fishing. If you want happiness for a year, inherit a fortune. If you want happiness for a lifetime, help somebody.” Scientific research provides compelling data to support the anecdotal evidence that helping others is a powerful pathway to personal growth and lasting happiness. Through fMRI technology, we now know that service to others activates the same parts of the brain that are stimulated by food and sex. Experiments show evidence that altruism is hardwired in the brain—and it's pleasurable. Helping others may just be the secret to living a life that is not only happier but also healthier, wealthier, more productive, and meaningful.
Experiences. Our preoccupation with stuff obscures an important truth: the things that don’t last create the most lasting happiness. That’s what Gilovich and Leaf Van Boven of the University of Colorado found when they asked students to compare the pleasure they got from the most recent things they bought with the experiences (a night out, a vacation) they spent money on. Experiences tend to blossom as you recall them, not diminish. Generally speaking, the people who are happiest are those who are best at creating experiences out of everything they spend money on, whether it’s a vacation or hiking boots.
Gratitude. There is a wealth of research showing that if you regularly practice gratitude, you’ll not only be happier, but you’ll be more creative, more fulfilled and more successful. Scientific studies have shown that the neurotransmitters released during expressions of gratitude actually help the brain decrease stress and increase happiness and well-being. Now, we also know that gratitude activates the prefrontal cortex - or the part of the brain responsible for all the higher order executive functions.