What Makes us Happy? Welcome to the Good Life.

As one year ends and another commences, most of us find ourselves reflecting and goal setting for 2016. Say what you want about this process but personally I love it. While I do believe it should be done more than once, the last few days of each year gives us no excuse NOT to do it. In the midst of writing down my own goals and dreams, needs and wants, I stumbled across a pretty well known Ted Talk that I had not yet seen. Enter Robert Waldinger’s Ted Talk: “What makes a good life? Lessons learned from the longest study on happiness.”

After watching and re-watching this talk, I started looking at the piece of paper I’d been working so hard on a little differently.

I glanced over it and saw a correlation: everything that I wanted was tied back to some form of happiness. I want to be healthier and more consistent with workouts this makes me happy. I want to plan an adventure with some degree of uncertainty because it makes me happy. Why do I want to get more involved with my church? Because it makes me happy (amongst other things). You get the picture.

Robert starts off by asking the audience what keeps us happy and healthy as we go on through life. He says that in a recent survey of millennials who were asked this question, 80% said getting rich and 50% said becoming famous. Woah. He notes that we are constantly told to work harder, push further and achieve more, which gives us the impression that these things are indisputable factors of the good life equation. But are they? Will working harder, achieving more, becoming rich and perhaps even famous make our lives happy and complete? According to the Harvard Study of Adult Development, the answer is no.

This longitudinal study took place over 75 years (starting in 1938) and tracked the lives of 724 men of which 60 are still alive and participating. To break it down further:

  • Group 1: 268 male sophomores at Harvard College who finished college during WWII and most of whom went on to serve in the war
  • Group 2: 456 inner-city Boston boys from some of the poorest neighborhoods and disadvantaged families in the Boston of the 1930’s

The study was much more extensive than simply sending each person a questionnaire every year. The subjects are interviewed in their living rooms and their children are talked to. Their blood is drawn, medical records shared, brains scanned. They get videotaped sharing their deepest concerns with their wives. It is extremely thorough and intimate.

So after 75 years of studying these individuals lives, what was the outcome? What makes us happy?

Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period. 

Welcome to the good life!

In Robert’s TED Talk, there are three key lessons learned about happiness and relationships.

1. Social connections are really good for us

and loneliness kills. Both groups concluded that those who are more connected to family, friends and community tend to be happier, healthier and live longer than those who are less well connected. Furthermore, people who claimed to be lonelier than their social counterparts were not only less happy but also saw their health decline earlier in midlife.

In his interview with U.S. News and World Report, John Cacioppo, co-author of the book, Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection  says that lonely adults consume more alcohol and get less exercise than those who aren’t lonely. They have fattier diets, sleep less and often times experience more daytime fatigue. Loneliness also predisposes us to premature aging.

2. It’s the quality not the quantity of relationships

It’s not about the number of friends you have or whether or not you’re in a committed relationship, but rather it’s about the quality of those close relationships that matters. As an example, the study goes on to say that high-conflict marriages without much affection are very bad for our health and perhaps worse than getting divorced. So settling for someone or trying to acquire more friends just because you think you should could cause more harm than good.

Another example of this was shown when the men had reached their 80’s. The people conducting the study wanted to make a prediction of the subjects’ health based on all of the information they had on them when they were 50. Surprisingly, it wasn’t the mens cholesterol levels at age 50 that would tell them who was healthier at 80. It was the quality of their relationships. People who were the most satisfied in their relationships at age 50 were the healthiest at age 80. Furthermore, on days when men (who were satisfied in their relationships) experienced more physical pain, they still maintained a happy mood. However, those who were not satisfied with relationships said they experienced a magnification in emotional pain.

In the 1990’s, Anthropologist Robin Dunbar concluded that the average person can have about 150 people in their social group, but that only 15 of these people are friends you can confide in and turn to for sympathy — and only five of these people are your close support group of best friends and family. Need I say more?

3. Secure relationships = protection

not just physically, but mentally, too. Memories stay sharper in the minds of people who are satisfied in their relationships while those who aren’t happy experience early memory decline. When you are able to count on someone during the tough times, you get a sense of security and protection from the other party which keeps you happier and healthier.

It should be noted that these “good” relationships weren’t always smooth. Some couples bickered day in and day out but as long as they could rely on the other person in a time of trouble, the arguments didn’t take a toll on their memories.

All of this shows that close, strong relationships are critical to our health and happiness. Waldinger points out that this wisdom is “as old as the hills” yet so many of us ignore it. Why? Because us humans want the painless, quickest, cleanest way to happiness and fail to realize that there is no such path to the good life. Relationships are dirty, not fun at times and certainly not glamorous.


Waldinger goes on to say that society places a tremendous emphasis on wealth and “leaning in” to our work. But that “But over and over, over these 75 years, our study has shown that the people who fared the best were the people who leaned in to relationships, with family, with friends, with community.”

To top things finish things off he gives a few suggestions on how to better improve the relationships of those around us. Can you take a guess of the one that we really resonated with?

“Replace screen time with people time”

If you haven’t yet seen the Ted Talk you can check it out here.

Welcome to the good life!






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