What really makes us Happy

What Really Makes Us Happy?

Asking yourself what really makes you happy can cause some brain-strain; thinking about your life and the times when you’ve been most happy. But getting people to respond to this question is not the best way to measure what really makes us happy. Our memories are often flawed and bitsy and can be very creative – leaving us with perhaps superficial or flavoured answers.

Many may be tempted to answer ‘money, material things and achievements’ – especially a young generation just setting out on life’s journey. But is that what really makes us happy?

In 1938, during the Great Depression, Harvard University began tracking the lives of 268 students in the hope that the longitudinal study would reveal clues as to what contributes towards a healthy and happy life. That study is still going.
Over the last 85 years, the study has expanded to include another study of much poorer men living in Boston, then adding the children of the original recruits, and later women. About 50 of the original students in the study are still alive. And one of the original recruits went on to be President of the United States – John F. Kennedy.
Harvard now has an ocean of data about all aspects of life. But there is one finding that current Study Director Dr Robert Waldinger says is more important than any other. He says it’s the key to a happy life: relationships.
“The surprising finding is that our relationships and how happy we are in our relationships has a powerful influence on our health,” he told the Harvard Gazette. “Taking care of your body is important, but tending to your relationships is a form of self-care too.”

He says they have learned three big things about relationships. The first is that social connection is very good for us. Being connected into family, friends, and a community result in a happier and physically healthier ageing experience. Loneliness is toxic, and one researcher from the University of Utah, who did a meta-analysis of a large range of similar studies, likens the detrimental health effects of being lonely to smoking half a packet of cigarettes a day or being obese. It’s not surprising then that being disconnected from others also makes one more prone to health problems such as heart disease and dementia.
Conversely, the study reported those who are in a close relationship, such as a marriage, tend to keep each other healthier. In fact, other studies have also shown those who are married on average, live longer than those who are not.
The second finding about relationships is that it’s not the number of friends we are connected with, but the quality of our relationships that matters. An introvert might only need a couple of close friends, but they will be just as happy and healthy as an extrovert with a very full social calendar.  The third finding was that good relationships protect our brains. People who are in secure relationships in their 80s find they can rely on their memories for longer. Loneliness leads to a faster fading memory and a greater risk of developing dementia.

So, what is it then about relationships that makes such a difference? Dr Waldinger believes that relationships are stress regulators. Most of us experience some level of stress most days. Having close relationships means we can talk to someone else, which literally calms us down. Those who are isolated aren’t always able to do that and can spend a prolonged period in a stressed state – higher blood pressure and cortisol – resulting in negative health effects.
It’s not surprising that research proves that relationships have such a dominant effect not just on our physical wellbeing but also mental health. But that doesn’t make maintaining relationships any easier! Relationships need to be cultivated. Much like going to the gym once and then thinking we’re set for life, our relationships need work, sometimes every day. While there is a push to get people saving money for their retirement, there should also be a push for people to build and strengthen their social connections to stay healthier longer. Call it social fitness!

Read more about this study on the Harvard Gazette site: https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/ (type Waldinger in the search bar).
Watch Dr Waldinger’s TED talk on YouTube: Robert Waldinger: What makes a good life? Lessons from the longest study on happiness | TED

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