Life Lessons From Harvard Happiness Study

Getting ready to retire

News & Insights

MoneyPlus Features Team

1st March 2016 at 2:06pm

What is it that makes us happy and healthy as we go through life? For the past 75 years, Harvard University in the US has been tracking the lives of hundreds of people to find out. And, contrary to what you might think, it’s not about money, fame or work.

Robert Waldinger, who leads the research project, has been sharing the three most important lessons everyone can learn from one of the most comprehensive studies in history.

How to be happy: It’s all about relationships

“Good relationships don’t just protect our bodies; they guard our brains as we age.”

As Waldinger explains in his recent talk to the TED organisation (it’s already been viewed by more than a quarter of a million people online) those lessons can help you take practical steps to build a happy and long life.

“The lessons aren’t about wealth or fame or working harder and harder,” he explains. “The clearest message that we get from this 75-year study is this: Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period.

“We’ve learned three big lessons about relationships. The first is that social connections are really good for us, and that loneliness kills. It turns out that people who are more socially connected to family, to friends, to community, are happier, they’re physically healthier, and they live longer.”

Quality of relationships matters

Waldinger, who’s a psychologist, psychiatrist and Zen priest, highlights the second big lesson.

It’s the quality of close relationships that matter most, not how many you have. As the evidence from speaking to 724 men and their spouses shows, living in an unhappy environment is very bad for your health. And the opposite is true: being in warm relationships is protective.

The third big lesson is that good relationships don’t just protect your body; they guard your brain as you age. And having good, quality relationships at age 50 is a key indicator of who’s most likely to grow into a happy, healthy octogenarian, with better health and a sharper memory.

Of course, these nuggets of wisdom aren’t new, but all too often many people look elsewhere in pursuit of the holy grail of happiness.

So, what can you do to give you the best chance of a long and happy life?

Waldinger’s advice on this is refreshingly uncomplicated. When you retire, fill the void left by your workmates with new playmates. Spend time and effort making good, positive relationships with your family, friends and the wider community.

It’s a philosophy that works, whatever age you are.

You can read more and watch the full, fascinating TED video here; it runs for under 15 minutes.

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The information in this blog or any response to comments should not be regarded as financial advice and is based on our understanding in February 2016.