Making a list of resolutions, or simply mulling about the New Year and what it has in store will, perhaps, never fade as a universal practice. Perhaps it is because happiness—that one thing we all strive to attain—has been perpetually elusive. Studies say that the millennials believe that happiness and the good life can be found in fame and wealth so I thought I ought to share in this column a message—a video, actually—which I recently received.
From the 12-minute video of psychiatrist Robert Waldinger, speaking as a director of the 75-year-old study done in Harvard University about adult development titled, “What makes a good life: lessons from the longest study on happiness,” I culled the following major points. If you think that what makes us happy and healthy as we go through life are fame and money, you are not alone, but you are mistaken, Dr. Waldinger says. So, what are the lessons derived from the tens of thousands of pages of information that the researchers in the study have gathered on the lives they studied?
First big lesson: good relationships keep us happier and healthier, Waldinger says. Elucidating, he adds, social connections are good for us and loneliness kills. People who are more connected to family, to friends, to community are happier. They are physically healthier too and live longer lives than people who are less connected. The experience of loneliness turns out to be toxic. People who are more isolated find that they are less happy, their health declines earlier in midlife, their brain functioning declines sooner and they live shorter lives than people who are not lonely. You can be lonely in a crowd and in a marriage.
The second big lesson gathered from the study, Waldinger says, is that it is not the number of friends you may have or whether you are in a committed relationship or not, but the quality of your close relationships that matters. Living in the midst of conflict, or in a relationship with no affection, turns out to be very bad for our health, even worse than divorce, he says. The men the researchers followed, who lived to be the healthiest at age 80 were not those who had good cholesterol levels at age 50. Rather, they were those who were the most satisfied in their relationships at age 50. Good, close relationships seem to buffer us from the slings and arrows of getting old, Waldinger said. The most happily partnered men and women reported that on days of physical pain, their mood stayed happy while those in unhappy relationships had magnified physical and emotional pain.
The third biggest lesson learned, Waldinger says, is that good relationships don’t just protect our bodies, they protect our brains, too. Being in a securely attached relationship is protective. People in relationships where they feel they can count on the other person in times of need have memories that stay sharper longer. On the other hand, people in relationships who feel they can’t count on the other person are the ones who experience earlier memory decline. Yet, our relationships do not have to be smooth all the time, he says. Some of the octogenarian couples whose lives were followed in the study, could bicker with each other, day in and day out, but as long as they felt they could really count on the other when the going got tough, their arguments did not take a toll on their memories.
While the wisdom learned from the study is as old as the hills, Dr. Waldinger says, we find it hard to learn because we are looking for quick fixes. Relationships, he says, are messy and complicated, and it is hard to tend to family and friends. Neither is the job sexy or glamorous, he says. It is also lifelong and never ending. The people in the 75-year-old study who were the happiest in retirement were the people who had actively worked to replace workmates with new playmates. Just like the millennials, Waldinger says, many of the men who were happy at 80, also believed when they were young adults, that fame and wealth and high achievement were what they needed to go after to have a good life. But over and over, the study has shown that the people who fared the best were those who learned to lean in to relationships with family, friends, and community.
The age of internet and high technology, while the bearer of the easy and convenient life, has unwittingly taken away much from the young generation. Children no longer invent their own toys from what they pick around them; they no longer play on the streets or in playgrounds with playmates. They stay in rooms with computers. People sitting side by side in public places or gatherings no longer talk to each other much—they surf the internet with their gadgets and work by texting or emailing, using their cellphones. We live in a generation of social media that connects us to people and the world faster but alas, the number of marriages falling apart are increasing and the number of people who say they are lonely is growing.
If we seek happiness, it is well to learn lessons from Harvard’s 75-year-old study on happiness and the good life.
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