We humans

4 lessons from the longest-running study on happiness

Apr 12, 2017 /

Essential, data-derived advice for leading a happy, healthy life, shared by researcher and psychiatrist Robert Waldinger.

Have you ever wished you could fast-forward your life so you could see if the decisions you’re making will lead to satisfaction and health in the future? In the world of scientific research, the closest you can get to that is by looking at the Harvard Study of Adult Development — a study that has tracked the lives of 724 men for 78 years, and one of the longest studies of adult life ever done. Investigators surveyed the group every two years about their physical and mental health, their professional lives, their friendships, their marriages — and also subjected them to periodic in-person interviews, medical exams, blood tests and brain scans.

With a front-row seat on these men’s lives, researchers have been able to track their circumstances and choices and see how the effects ripple through their lives. Psychiatrist Robert J. Waldinger, the study’s director and principal investigator, shared some of the major lessons in a popular TED Talk (What makes a good life? Lessons from the longest study on happiness). He says, ”We’d been publishing journal articles with our findings for 75 years, but we publish in journals about lifespan developmental research that few people read. The government has invested millions of dollars in the research, so why keep it a secret?”

The big takeaways from that talk: Good relationships keep us happier and healthier, and loneliness kills. But there were, of course, many more lessons to be learned — the study has yielded more than 100 published papers so far, with enough data for “scores more” — and Waldinger shares four of them here. 

1. A happy childhood has very, very long-lasting effects.

Having warm relationships with parents in childhood was a good predictor you’ll have warmer and more secure relationships with those closest to you when you’re an adult. Happy childhoods had the power to extend across decades to predict more secure relationships that people had with their spouses in their 80s, as well as better physical health in adulthood all the way into old age. And it’s not just parental bonds that matter: Having a close relationship with at least one sibling in childhood predicted which people were less likely to become depressed by age 50.

2. But … people with difficult childhoods can make up for them in midlife.

People who grow up in challenging environments — with chaotic families or economic uncertainty, for instance — grew old less happily than those who had more fortunate childhoods. But by the time people reached middle age (defined as ages 50–65), those who engaged in what psychologists call “generativity,” or an interest in establishing and guiding the next generation, were happier and better adjusted than those who didn’t. And generativity is not dependent on being a parent — while people can develop it by raising children, they can also exhibit it at work or other situations where they mentor younger adults.

3. Learning how to cope well with stress has a lifelong payoff.

We’ve all developed ways of managing stress and relieving anxiety, and Waldinger and his team have found that some ways can have greater long-term benefits than others. Among the adaptive coping methods they examined are sublimation (example: you feel unfairly treated by your employer, so you start an organization that helps protect workers’ rights), altruism (you struggle with addiction and help stay sober by being a sponsor for other addicts), and suppression (you’re worried about job cuts at your company but put those worries out of mind until you can do something to plan for the future). Maladaptive coping strategies include denial, acting out, or projection. The Harvard researchers found the subjects who dealt with stress by engaging in adaptive methods had better relationships with other people. And their way of coping had a cascade of beneficial effects: It made them easier for others to be with, which made people want to help them and led to more social support, and that, in turn, predicted healthier aging in their 60s and 70s. Added bonus: people who used adaptive mechanisms in middle age also had brains that stayed sharper longer.

4. Time with others protects us from the bruises of life’s ups and downs.

Waldinger has said “it’s the quality of your relationships that matters” is one significant takeaway from the study. Well, the researchers have found that quantity counts, too. Looking back on their lives, people most often reported their time spent with others as most meaningful, and the part of their lives of which they were the proudest. Spending time with other people made study subjects happier on a day-to-day basis, and in particular, time with a partner or spouse seemed to buffer them against the mood dips that come with aging’s physical pains and illnesses.

Waldinger continues to marvel at the researchers’ findings, even though he freely acknowledges how skewed their research group is — “it’s the most politically incorrect sample you could possibly have; it’s all white men!” (In fact, the group originally included John F. Kennedy.) With “only a handful” of the original subjects left to study, the Harvard team is now moving on to the men’s 1,300 children who’ve agreed to participate (a group that’s 51 percent female). But he’s painfully aware that the proposed cuts to the National Institutes of Health could end even their long-running study. “Our kind of research might be one of the first projects to go. Our work is not urgent; it’s not the cure for cancer or Alzheimer’s,” he says. “But we have a way of understanding human life that you can’t get anywhere else and it lays the foundation for important, actionable things.”