In this second part, we look at what the world’s longest study of happiness teaches us about the good life—and whether the lessons learned from this kind of research are of any value.
Researched by: Rachel John & Nirmal Bhansali
Editor’s note: In the first part of this series on happiness, we looked at the history of happiness research—and the 85-year Harvard study of happiness.
The not-so-secret recipe of happiness
A quick recap: The Harvard study is the world’s longest running study on happiness—dating back to 1938. Since then, its researchers have been surveying the same set of participants as they went through different stages in their lives. Over the decades, the pool of participants has expanded from male Harvard students to include inner city men, women and children—but has remained mostly white. And its methodology has changed considerably from one decade to another—with the evolution of the field of psychology. Yet, its findings have remained remarkably consistent—reaching the same conclusion, decade after decade.
All about the R-word: Until the 70s, the Harvard study was mostly bumbling along without direction, funding or purpose. That’s until psychoanalyst George Valliant took charge in 1972. By the 80s—long before anyone had heard of ‘positive psychology’ —Valiant had laid out what has now become a mantra of happiness research: “[T]he key to healthy ageing is relationships, relationships, relationships.” That conclusion remains unchanged in 2023:
Close relationships, more than money or fame, are what keep people happy throughout their lives... Those ties protect people from life’s discontents, help to delay mental and physical decline, and are better predictors of long and happy lives than social class, IQ, or even genes.
Also this: The study tightly connects emotional and physical well-being—arguing that relationships are critical for both:
When we gathered together everything we knew about them at age 50, it wasn’t their middle-age cholesterol levels that predicted how they were going to grow old. It was how satisfied they were in their relationships. The people who were the most satisfied in their relationships at age 50 were the healthiest at age 80.
Those who found themselves isolated in old age often met an early death. Waldinger puts it bluntly: “Loneliness kills. It’s as powerful as smoking or alcoholism.”
Point to note: This is why Waldinger recommends investing in our relationships in preparation for retirement—just as we invest in our finances.
Not about the M-word: Marriage is not in the least bit necessary to ensure happiness. Waldinger instead defines ‘relationships’ in the broadest sense of the word:
You don't need to live with anyone to get these benefits, that it has to do with the warmth and the closeness of connections... And that's important because some people feel like if I don't have an intimate partner, I'm out of luck, and our study tells us loud and clear that is not true.
These can be with friends, other relatives, workmates, people in our community or neighbourhood. What matters is the depth and warmth of these bonds.
The importance of ‘social fitness’: Think of this as the emotional corollary of physical fitness. Just as we exercise regularly to stay in shape, we have to work at our relationships to remain emotionally healthy:
When I was in my 20s, I thought, well, I got my friends from school, from college. You know, I have people I hang out with. They're always going to be there. I don't need to do anything specifically about that. But what we know from following all these lives is that perfectly good friendships and relationships can wither away from neglect. And so, what we talk about is this idea that friendships are this living dynamic system that need to be maintained.
Waldinger argues that nurturing these relationships doesn’t require a herculean effort—often a text message or just a short phone call will sustain a bond. Think of it as the emotional equivalent of taking the stairs instead of the elevator. Small daily actions offer lasting, long-term benefits.
What gets in the way: Nurturing warm relationships doesn’t sound like a chore—but is often a lot harder than it sounds. One immediate hurdle is human nature:
“Talking to strangers is a little risky,” says Waldinger. “Even calling a friend is risky, because you don’t know whether your friend is going to want to hear from you. Human relations always have that element of unpredictability.” This is why staying in alone rather than going out can feel preferable. “If I stay home and watch something on Netflix, it’s a predictable evening for me. Part of it is this path of least resistance – away from relationships and towards something more predictable and manageable.”
The other big hurdle: is living in a culture that values achievement over connection. Unsurprisingly, participants that had “more prestigious jobs and more money were no happier in their lives. What’s interesting, however, is the explanation as to why money can’t buy us happiness:
The notion that you will be satisfied if you chase a money-oriented achievement – like a big promotion or a dollar figure in your 401(k) – pushes happiness into the future and always out of reach.
Materialism is the continual postponement of happiness. And it also represents an opportunity cost. More time we spend chasing success, the less we have for our relationships.
Point to note: This doesn’t mean money makes us miserable. According to the Harvard study, social class has very little connection to happiness—there are unhappy people across the spectrum. And Waldinger also acknowledges that “we are less happy when we struggle for food security and housing and all that.” Money may not buy us happiness, but it gives us a sense of control over our lives.
The many big ‘buts’ about happiness research
All these studies about happiness are seductive precisely because they confirm our biases. Be it Hollywood or Bollywood, popular culture is always banging on about the importance of love—and the evils of chasing money. Do we really need a 85-year study to state the obvious?
Then there is the very field of happiness research. As its critics point out, self-reported measures of happiness have stayed stagnant for over 40 years—despite the thousands of studies, self-help books and even college courses. Why isn’t happiness research making us any happier?
One: Despite centuries of debate, philosophers, psychologists and scientists have not been able to agree on a universal definition of happiness:
Like “justice” or “beauty,” happiness is a vague term that means different things to different people; as a consequence, even though everyone knows what it means in various situations, we would be hard-pressed to come up with a single definition that captures all those aspects for every person.
So how can you study happiness using self-reported surveys when your participants have very different definitions of the word?
Two: Now add cultural differences into the mix. We can’t even agree as to whether happiness is desirable:
Americans tend to define happiness in terms of pleasure and view happiness as a universally positive thing, whereas East Asian and Middle Eastern cultures can see happiness as socially disruptive and are more ambivalent about whether it is a good thing.
In fact, a number of studies show that the pursuit of happiness is almost guaranteed to make us unhappy. And yet happiness researchers and self-help gurus urge us to focus almost exclusively on being happy.
Three: We now know that at least part of our capacity for happiness is determined by our genes. The controversial happiness pie published in 2005 claimed that 50% of people’s happiness is genetic—while 10% depends on life circumstances and 40% on “intentional activity.” In other words, we have a lot of control over how happy we are.
Unhappily, this upbeat generalisation has since been amended. Turns out, genetics and environment—which includes family, culture, class—play far bigger roles in determining how happy we can possibly be. The same authors now concede:
“Happiness can be successfully pursued, but it is not ‘easy”... In other words, happiness for many people will simply be something that is hard won. For others, happiness may feel like a natural state.
This is why people tend to default to their base level of happiness—however high or low—whether they win the lottery or suffer a terrible car accident.
Point to note: The more nuanced view of genetic influence now holds that some people are more ‘environmentally sensitive’:
Some people are susceptible to their environment and so can significantly change their thoughts, feelings and behaviour in response to both negative and positive events. So when attending a wellbeing workshop or reading a positive psychology book, they may become influenced by it and experience significantly more change compared to others—and the change may last longer, too.
But that’s only because these lucky souls are blessed with ‘genetic plasticity’. The irony is that happiness research may indeed be useful—but mostly to the genetically gifted.
Four: Last not least, critics of happiness research view its emphasis on positivity as yet another form of societal brainwashing:
[P]ositive psychology has developed an ideal of ‘mental health’ that essentially exalts a particular personality type: ‘a cheerful, outgoing, goal-driven, status-seeking extravert.’... In failing to adopt a positive outlook or behaviours allegedly conducive to happiness, one risks being perceived as obstructive, detrimental to productivity or workplace morale, poor parents, or likely to suffer ill health or early death as a result of one’s negative attitude.
The bottomline: We leave you with Elizabeth Kolbert’s incisive argument that happiness should not be the only yardstick to guide human actions. As she points out, “studies have shown that women find caring for their children less pleasurable than napping or jogging and only slightly more satisfying than doing the dishes”—which ought to have us rushing to have our tubes tied. Or how about this:
[L]et’s imagine, for a moment, that we had enjoyed ourselves for the past fifty years. Surely, trashing the planet is just as wrong if people take pleasure in the process as it is if they don’t… Happiness is a good thing; it’s just not the only thing.
Or as Faiz Ahmed Faiz wittily flipped it: “Aur bhi gham hain zamaane mein, mohabbat ke siwa.”
- The Guardian has the best deep dive on the Harvard study—or you could read the first part of this explainer for a summary.
- Greater Good lists its recommendations for a happy life.
- New Yorker points out the odd and twisted logic of some happiness researchers on money—while this Guardian op-ed explains why there’s a good reason humans are unhappy.
- Read this Daniel Gilbert interview for the best defence of happiness research.
- LiveScience and Cnet do a decent job of rounding up the most common recommendations on how to be happy.
- If you really want to know about happiness, take this free Coursera class with Yale professor Laurie Santos.
- The Conversation has a good piece on the role of genetics in determining happiness.