What keeps us happy and healthy?

Looking back, if you were going to give some advice to your former self, where would you recommend investing the most time and energy to lead a happy and fulfilling life?     

In a recent survey of millennials (i.e. those born between 1982 – 2000) over 80 per cent said that a major life goal for them was to get rich. And another 50 per cent of the same group said becoming famous was a major goal – a sad reflection of  the celebrity culture we live in, it would seem.

From schooldays onwards, we’re constantly told to concentrate on work, push harder and achieve more. We’re given the impression that this is what we need to pursue in order to have a good life. And so the temptation is to stay late at the office, chase a higher salary and neglect those closest to us. Yet no one would ever choose, ‘I’d wish I’d spent more time at the office’  as their epitaph.  

So if money doesn’t make us happy, what’s the secret?    

Robert Waldinger recently shared the findings from the Harvard Study of Adult Development or the ‘Longest Study of Happiness’.  For 75 years, they have been tracking the lives of 724 men, each year asking about their work, their home lives and their health, without of course knowing how their life stories were going to turn out. The study followed two groups of men; one group from Harvard, the other from Boston’s poorest neighbourhoods.

It transpires, the lessons weren’t about wealth or fame or working harder and harder. The clearest message to come out of this 75-year-long exercise was that good relationships are what keep us happier and healthier.

Waldinger highlights three key areas. Firstly, people who are more socially connected to family, friends and community are happier, physically healthier and live longer than people who are less so. Loneliness is in fact the  greatest ill of the 21st century.  So if social interaction is good for us, we should be actively making sure we replace workmates with new ‘mates’ through interests and activities, once we reach retirement.

The second lesson was that it’s not just about the number of friends you have or whether or you’re in a committed relationship, but it’s the quality of your close relationships that matters. Living in the midst of conflict is really bad for our health, whereas warm, close relationships seem to buffer us from the trials and tribulations of getting old.

And thirdly, good relationships don’t just protect our bodies, but our brains too. The study showed that being in a secure  relationship to another person in your 80s is protective. People’s memories stayed sharper longer, if they were with someone they could count on in times of need. Don’t worry, relationships didn’t have to be smooth all the time! Some of the octogenarian couples could bicker with each other all day but as long as they could rely on each other in hard times, the arguments didn’t take a toll on their memories.

Just like the millenials, many of the people in the survey really believed at the start that fame, wealth and high achievement were what they needed to go after to have a happy life. But time and again, over the 75 years, the study demonstrated that the people who fared the best were those who focused on their family, friends and community. The  ‘good life’ it would seem is built with good relationships.