The Real Key to Happiness
At the age of five, John Lennon’s mom told him that the key to life was happiness. Thanks to a 75-year long Harvard study, we now know just how right his mom really was. Even though he achieved fame and fortune, it’s evident that Lennon’s primary pursuit in life was happiness.
I recently watched a TEDx Talk given by Robert Waldinger, Director of the Harvard Study on Human Development, the longest of its kind. The study focuses on what makes us happy and healthy—and it’s neither fame nor fortune. In his talk, Waldinger broke down the study’s framework, as well as the evidence it’s gathered, and provides an interesting analysis on the true key to achieving happiness.
The study began in 1938 with 724 men and followed them throughout their entire lives; it’s still running today with the remaining 60 men. Four generations of Harvard scientists intensely chronicled the lives of each participant. One group began with sophomores at Harvard, and the second group consisted of men from the Boston tenements. Their early-age aspirations were to attain wealth, become famous, and work hard, which these men believed would produce happiness.
However, the study reveals a very different result. The only things that produced lasting happiness in the lives of the participants were their sustained close relationships. Interestingly, these relationships not only resulted in happiness, but overall better physical health, as well.
Overall there were three key lessons that have been and continue to be learned about the value of closer relationships. First, social connections are good for us, and conversely, loneliness, which can be experienced by those in unsatisfying relationships, is toxic. Second, it is not about the quantity of connections but rather the quality. Third, the benefit not only extends to our sense of happiness but our bodies and brains are more protected as a result. Happy people live longer.
No real relationships, whether they be personal or business, are automatically easy, nor do they become mutually satisfying without determined effort to stay genuinely connected. From the moment we are born to our dying day, we are social creatures. Failing to recognize and meet our social needs handicaps our personal potential for happiness.
What the study doesn’t show is that there is anything wrong in seeking fame or acquiring wealth. What it important, though, is a clearer understanding that achieving those goals alone will not provide lasting happiness without also having close relationships. Those relationships require consistent effort, but how do we achieve them?
In the book I co-authored with Max J. Pucher, Who’s In Your Orbit?: Beyond Facebook—Creating Relationships That Matter, we outline the four components of strong relationships: time, intensity, trust, and reciprocity. While it costs nothing, once spent, it is gone forever. Spending time with someone demonstrates his or her importance to us. When your connection with another is emotionally intense, it is by virtue a stronger relationship. Authentic relationships can’t exist without trust. It is earned in many ways, but most often by the time and intensity elements that precede it. This requires two-way effort, and where this exists, greater strength and value builds over time.
Regardless of our personal goals, we can all learn from the Harvard study. Wealth and fame may bring satisfaction, but in the absence of relationships, they will not bring happiness. John Lennon’s mom was right about the importance of being happy, and this study makes it clear: The key to happiness is the quality of our personal relationships.