5 research-backed lessons on what makes a happy life

Robert John Waldinger, MD

Ever wonder what it would be like to be able to look at people’s entire adult lives? Not asking older people to remember, but starting with them as teenagers and tracking their health and well-being until they die? We’ve been lucky enough to do this for the past 78 years, starting in the late 1930s and early ‘40s with a group of men who agreed to be part of one of the longest studies of adult life ever done.

The Harvard Study of Adult Development has tracked the lives of 724 men from the time they were teenagers into old age — 268 Harvard College sophomores, and 456 boys from Boston’s inner city. Using questionnaires, interviews, medical records, and scans of blood and brains, we’ve monitored their physical and mental health, work lives, friendships, and romances.

Here are five of the big lessons we’ve learned about what contributes to a good life.

Lesson 1: Happy childhoods matter

Having warm relationships with parents in childhood predicts that you will have warmer and more secure relationships with those closest to you in adulthood. We found that warm childhoods reached across decades to predict more secure relationships with spouses at age 80. A close relationship with at least one sibling in childhood predicts that people are less likely to become depressed by age 50. And warmer childhood relationships predict better physical health in adulthood all the way into old age.

Lesson 2: Fostering the welfare of the next generation can ease the sting of difficult childhoods

People who grow up in difficult childhood environments (chaotic families, economic uncertainty) grow old less happily than those who have more fortunate childhoods. But by the time these people reach middle age (ages 50 to 65), those who mentor the next generation — guiding younger adults at home or at work — are happier and better adjusted than those who do not. The kind of maturation needed to nurture younger people also seems to reduce some of the sting of growing up disadvantaged.

Lesson 3: Coping effectively with stress has lifelong benefits

We all have habitual ways of managing stress and relieving anxiety. Some people tend to ignore uncomfortable facts, while others tend to face difficult issues and deal with what is unpleasant. For example, someone who is angry at his boss might “forget about it” but start missing important work deadlines. Alternatively, he might find a way to take up his concerns directly with that boss. We found that the people who cope with stress by engaging more directly with reality rather than pushing it away have better relationships with others. This coping style makes it easier for others to deal with them, which in turn makes people want to help them. They end up having better relationships and more social support, and this predicts healthier aging in your 60s and 70s. People who use these more adaptive coping mechanisms in middle age also end up with brains that stay sharper longer.

Lesson 4: Breaking bad habits earlier in life makes a difference

Watching people’s smoking habits across adulthood, those who quit earlier are less likely to develop lung disease as they grow old. They are also more likely to live longer than people who do not quit smoking or who quit later in life. Our findings differ from some studies that find no change in risk of disease and death once you’re tobacco-free for 15 years or more. Getting off the couch and starting to exercise earlier in life predicts that you’ll stay healthy longer in life, that your brain will stay sharper, and even that your immune system will be stronger.

Lesson 5: Time with others makes us happier

Looking back on their lives, people most often report their time with others as the most meaningful part of life, and what they’re proudest of. Time with other people makes us happier on a day-to-day basis, and time with a close partner buffers us against the mood dips that come with increased physical pain.

You can learn more about the study and our research at www.robertwaldinger.com and www.adultdevelopmentstudy.org. We are now studying the children of these men. Almost 1,300 of these second-generation baby boomers are participating in our study, and we hope to know more about what helps people thrive across generations.

Stay tuned.

Comments:

  1. Daniel D. Connor

    The women above who appear to be angry perhaps should spend time applying these suggestions which may assist all of us regardless of gender.

  2. Arjen

    If you want to never be happy or satisfied with your life, one great way to do that is to raise your expectations to an unrealistically high standard that can never possibly be met.

    This is the essence of perfectionism. It’s the inability to be happy with something until it is perfect, without any flaws whatsoever. Of course, the problem with this mindset is that perfectionism is often an illusion.

    Life rarely works out exactly the way we want, in any domain – whether it’s relationships, work, or goals.

    And many times being more happy with your life requires that you let go of these expectations and learn to be more content with how things are, rather than how you picture they should be in an “ideal world.”

    Many studies are beginning to show the many ways perfectionism can destroy your happiness.

    Arjen, founder of Dutch Digital Delta

  3. Safina Qurban

    I believe that true happiness touches our souls n hearts if we start counting our blessings and offer gratitude that we are given much more than we deserve and also value nurture those blessings and if we lack something,just accept it and work to accomplish something if we could and value and respect our own beings and yeah for sure try to a generous giver of our time,resources and knowledge as it’s the law if the universe as we receive we have to give back too.

    • Suhail

      I fully agree with Safinas point of view.We should count our blessings especially​ which we probably don’t deserve.
      Importantly​,we should say no to the materialistic life, unnecessary competition,be content with what we have been bestowed upon.

  4. Michael

    I think Ana is agreeing with Babara.

    And I agree too

  5. Heather Weiss, Global Family Research Project

    Did they ever interview or study the men’s wives/partners? Their kids? They clearly play a big role for the men in their health and happiness, and vice versa?
    Heather Weiss
    Global Family Research Project

    • Robert J Waldinger

      We were able to include wives when I joined the Study in 2003. And we’re now studying the children — 1300 of them.

  6. Foxalowitz

    Poor Richard Branson and Bill Gates – what are they to do with their impossibly introverted natures. They should have given up right at the start.

    • Robert Waldinger

      The findings aren’t about extroverts vs introverts. It’s about warmth of relationships. You can be an introvert and have one warm relationship and have the effects we find. Our culture is biased toward extroverts.

  7. Suzanne

    Telling an introvert to stop being one is like asking a person with pneumonia not to cough!

  8. Sharon Felson

    What do you mean by “a medical defect” in regard to introverts?

  9. Lois Jecklin

    This study was done in the ’30’s and ’40’s, so of course it was OF men and BY men. Almost all health studies in that period were just that way. That said, it did not offer any new insights.

  10. Shula Gross

    I am so upset by this study! As usual, you interviewed hundreds of men and never thought to add a substantial number of women to the study.
    How typical of Harvard research. Aren’t you even afraid to publish this lest someone attack you on these grounds?

    It seems to me (only a prof of statistics and bio statistics) that it is exactly coping mechanism that are so gender dependent, and you have the gall to represent your results as general and applicable to the entire population. Were they ALL WHITE MEN??? OR NEARLY SO?

    Shula Gross
    Baruch College of the City University of New York
    and the Graduate Center

  11. RUTH

    Nothing is mentioned about inner strength, the ability to cope under

    sometimes trying circumstances and RESILENCE……

  12. S. Stephens

    It would be helpful to follow and research women too.

    I hope this can happen soon. It makes sense not only because women are so much more different in men in some ways, but also because women outnumber men.

    Thank you!

  13. Chris

    “Lesson 5: Time with others makes us happier”

    What about for introverts, for whom spending time with others makes us less happy.

    • Bob

      Then you may be happy being an introvert but never reach the apex of human happiness. Try not to be an introvert. Human animals are not introverts. You may have a medical defect that needs to be repaired.

      • Barbara

        “Try not to be an introvert” – really? There seems to be a bias against introverts because extroverts are in the majority, and my own experience has been that extroverts seem to think that people should be like them. I am a very happy person who tends toward being an introvert. I enjoy being with people, but also need time by myself to recharge. Introverts don’t have “medical defects.”

      • ana north

        Not true – I am a Psychiatrist and extrovert with several introverted family members and 40 years of work with every possible variety of people on the I/E scale. There have always been introverts and thank goodness. They need time alone but are not hermits (another matter altogether). They typically choose some social interaction as well. They need to pick their times, places and companion and they do. They can “ponder” – a very valuable asset in our society and one which is more and more lacking. I have long managed, with some effort, to put a little more “introvert time”, if you will, in my life. I am much happier, do better work and am healthier when I do.