In 1938, researchers at Harvard Medical School hit upon a crazy but visionary idea: They would sign up a bunch of men then studying at Harvard and follow them over their whole adult lives, until they died. They would question them every year along the way about their lifestyles, habits, relationships, work, and happiness. Even though the original researchers would all be dead and gone, in a few decades, new researchers would be able to see how what people do early in life relates to how well or poorly they age.
And thus, the Harvard Study of Adult Development was born. The original cohort of 268 men included people from many walks of life, including some who went on to become well-known, such as John F. Kennedy and Washington Post editor, Ben Bradlee. Still, over the decades, it was deemed too demographically insular, so it was paired with another dataset (called the Glueck Study) that had been tracking 456 disadvantaged youths from Boston starting at about the same time. Together, these data are updated continually for more than eighty years.
Fewer than sixty of the original participants are still alive, and the study is now tracking children and grandchildren of the first generation.
The result of this study is like a crystal ball of happiness: you look at how people lived, loved, and worked in their twenties and thirties, and then you can see how their lives turned out over the following decades. The longtime study director, Harvard psychiatry professor George Vaillant, wrote three bestselling books on the results. His successor, psychiatry professor Robert Waldinger, popularized the study even more with a viral TED Talk, “What Makes a Good Life? Lessons from the Longest Study on Happiness,” which has been viewed nearly forty million times.
The Good Life | Robert Waldinger | TEDxBeaconStreet
One of the most interesting things that the researchers have done over the years is categorize the participants when old, with respect to happiness and health. The best off were called “Happy-Well,” who enjoyed six dimensions of good physical health, as well as good mental health and high life satisfaction.
On the very other end of the spectrum were the “Sad-Sick,” who were below average in physical health, mental health, and life satisfaction.
What led to being in each category? This is the million-dollar question for all of us, isn’t it? The researchers found that some of the predictors are controllable, while others aren’t. Among the uncontrollable factors (uncontrollable by us), at least are the social class of parents, having a happy childhood, having long-lived ancestors, and avoiding clinical depression.
There are seven big predictors of being Happy-Well that we can control pretty directly:
- Smoking. Simple: don’t smoke- or at least, quit early.
- Drinking. Alcohol abuse is one of the most obvious factors in the Grant Study leading to Sad-Sick and putting Happy-Well out of reach. If there is any indication of problem drinking in your life, or if you have drinking problems in your family, do not wonder about it or take your chances. Quit drinking right now.
- Healthy body weight. Avoid obesity. Without being fanatical, maintain a body weight in the normal range, eating in moderate, healthy way without yo-yo dieting or crazy restrictions you can’t maintain over the long run.
- Exercise. Stay physically active, even with a sedentary job. Arguably the single best, time-tested way to do this is walking every day.
- Adaptive coping style. That means confronting problems directly, appraising them honestly, and dealing with them directly without excessive rumination, unhealthy emotional reactions, or avoidance behaviour.
- Education. More education leads to a more active mind later on, and that means a longer, happier life.That doesn’t mean going to Harvard; it simply means lifelong learning, and lots of reading.
- Stable, long-term relationships. For most, this is a steady marriage, but there are other relationships that can fit here. The point is having people with whom you grow together, whom you can count on, no matter what comes your way.
Seven goals aren’t so many, but it helps to know the most important one thing to remember. That nailing-down process can be extremely helpful to focus the mind. Is it the smoking, drinking, or exercise? No. According to George Vaillant, the single most important trait of Happy-Well elders is healthy relationships.
“When the study began, nobody cared about empathy or attachment. But the key to healthy aging is relationships, relationships, relationships.”: George Vaillant