What We’re Watching: What Makes a Good Life? Lessons from the Longest Study on Happiness


What are your major life goals? Take a minute and think about what you truly hope for yourself in 10, 30, even 50 years.

This question was posed to a group of millennials not long ago, and a majority said wealth. Half of the same group said fame. There’s nothing wrong with these goals, but it turns out they don’t actually make you happiest.

For 75 years, the Harvard Study of Adult Development has been tracking the health, professional pursuits and personal lives of 724 men. It’s ongoing with about 60 participants still alive, most in their 90s. Studies of this length are very rare due to the commitment required of participants and researchers. However, this particular study has persevered through generations, and researchers are learning what it takes to keep humans happy and healthy.

Robert Waldinger, the fourth director of the study, said the thousands of pages of interviews, medical records and questionnaires collected over the course of 75 years boil down to one truth: “Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period.”

Waldinger highlighted three lessons about relationships that he’s learned from the study:

  1. “Social connections are really good for us, and…loneliness kills.” People who have strong social connections are happier, healthier and live longer. The opposite is true for those who are more isolated than they want to be.
  2. The number of friends you have isn’t actually what’s important. “It’s the quality of your close relationships that matters.” Experiencing high-conflict relationships is very bad for one’s health, while good relationships are actually protective.
  3. “Good relationships don’t just protect our bodies, they protect our brains.” The study shows that when an 80-year-old person has a secure relationship and can really count on another person in tough situations, then his/her memory stays sharper longer. Alternatively, people who can’t count on the other person experience a decline in memory earlier.

So what’s the lesson here then? Perhaps it’s different for everyone – leave work a little earlier to get home and spend time with family, reach out to old friends, strengthen relationships at the office, put more effort into staying connected with those who are most important. Whatever lesson you take away, make relationships a priority so that you can live a long, healthy and happy life!

Watch Waldinger’s TED Talk to learn more about the study and what it can mean for you. And consider Waldinger’s question: “What might leaning in to relationships…look like?”


Content Development Manager, Bon Education

Image available under CC License by Ulbrecht Hopper

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

2 Responses to “What We’re Watching: What Makes a Good Life? Lessons from the Longest Study on Happiness”

  1. Fay September 1, 2016 at 2:37 pm #

    A truly amazing Tedtalk. So interesting to hear what he says about this 75 year study. Thanks, have already watched it 3 times now and get more out of it everytime I watch.

    • Michelle Hollett September 2, 2016 at 10:39 pm #

      Thanks, Fay! I’m glad you are enjoying the TED Talk; I found it fascinating as well. It’s very rare to have a study of this length – so much to learn from it!

Leave a Reply