Episode 029 – Happiness
The longest study of human life ever conducted reveals the one key component connected to living a long, happy, and healthy life.
Happiness. It’s not rocket science. Yet, we love to pretend it is. Can you believe that I’m actually foolish enough to attempt an episode on happiness?
But I’ve been working on this for a while now and I’ve decided to let it fly. You see, I’ve got a ringer. I’ve got science on my side.
85 years of science… and data collection from one of the longest-running studies of human life ever conducted.
Begun in 1938, The Harvard Study of Adult Development has been studying and detailing the lives of over 2000 people to determine the key components of happiness. Only 50 participants survive today and they’re in their upper 90s or 100s.
This might be the most important thing you hear today.
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In 2011, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution which recognised happiness as a “fundamental human goal” and called for “a more inclusive, equitable and balanced approach to economic growth that promotes the happiness and well-being of all peoples”.
In 2012 the first ever UN conference on Happiness took place and the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution which decreed that the International Day of Happiness would be observed every year on 20 March.
That’s next week… serendipitous? I think not. Let’s talk about happiness.
In preparation for this episode, I scoured my Google Drive for some cryptic notes I knew I made some time ago on the subject of happiness. It’s a topic that is so broad and subjective, I’ve abandoned it several times. We’ll see if this episode makes it to the other side.
I never found the happiness notes. What I stumbled upon instead, was a piece I’d writen almost three years ago to the day called, The World on Lockdown.
Hard to believe that 3 years have passed since those early days of Covid and I know, everyone is tired of hearing and talking about Covid. Hang with me here.
I’m tired of it too but if I’m going to do this piece on happiness…it’s gotta start with what Covid did to our relationships. If I do my job correctly, the connection will be obvious.
Covid shrunk the world. It isolated us and drove us all indoors. It made us fearful of our neighbors and our public spaces.
We lost capacity to seek out new things and engage with new ideas.
Sympathy and kindness declined and we became less motivated to pursue goals and face responsibilities.
These are all documented effects from a study of over 7,000 adults.
Suffice it to say, things were bad but we had no idea as a world community just how bad it would get and it’s still not gone.
There. That’s it. Let’s move on, as it pertains to this thing called happiness, maybe you’re asking if it’s even possible to measure something so subjective.
Sure, every day we experience moments of happiness. The little but not insignificant things: we find a great parking spot. We get a raise or promotion. We have a great workout.
All of these are immediate happiness markers but they fade quickly. Let’s set those aside for the sake of this discussion. Let’s focus on longterm happiness.
Where am I going with this?
Well… let me tell you about the answer to a question that was asked to a group of people between the ages of 28 and 45 regarding happiness and life goals.
When asked about their most important life goal, 80% of respondents said they wanted to be rich. 50% of those people said they wanted to be famous.
Now, to be fair and give the full picture, this study was done just prior to Covid. I haven’t been able to find a recent update but I’d be curious to see if the answer today was different.
It’s always a little dangerous to use data like that because you never truly know who compiled it and how thorough process was. These days, the modern response is, who can you trust? Everybody’s got an angle.
Personally, I still believe you trust the science and the scientists who’ve devoted their lives to the research but I digress.
But let’s take that to the extreme. What if I told you there is a study still going on today that began in 1938. It’s one of the longest-running studies of human life ever conducted.
Would you believe that data?
The Study of Happiness
For the last 85 years, the Harvard Study of Adult Development has been tracking, compiling and analyzing thousands and thousands of pages of data on the lives of 724 men.
456 of them from some of Boston’s poorest neighborhoods and 268 sophmores attending Harvard University just prior to WWII. These two groups were very deliberate.
Some men went on to serve and die in the war. Others grew into factory workers, lawyers, doctors, some went to prison, and one of them was a young man named John F. Kennedy Jr.
If it wasn’t still ongoing, most would say it was impossible. And they’d be right. Most studies like this fall apart in less than a decade due to several reasons,the main ones being loss of funding or interest. Participants disappear or quit or – researchers lose interest or die.
The Harvard Study is currently opperating under its 4th director, Dr. Robert Waldinger, Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard University and author of The Good Life.
Here’s how they’ve managed this thing.
Every 2 years, surviving participants were and are brought in and interviewed at length. They undergo mental exams, and are given questionnaires with very specific questions.
Every 5 years, they’re given extensive health exams and brain scans. And by extensive, in the early days of the study, we’re talking right down to measuring penis and testicle size.
Their children were interviewed and conversations with their wives were recorded. Eventually, the wives and children were absorbed into the study. All-in-all, over 2000 particpants have been documented, 50 of whom are still alive today and in their 90s or 100s.
What did they learn in the tens of thousands of pages?
Well, I’ll tell you in a minute but first I gotta tell you about something called hedonic adaptation.
The technical definition goes like this: Hedonic adaptation is the observed tendency for humans to return to a relatively stable level of happiness after major positive or negative events or life changes.
Basically, after a major event, doesn’t matter how elated or devastated we feel, we’ll eventually return to the level of happiness we’ve always been.
This phenomenon explains why most lottery winners return to their baseline level of happiness once the adrenaline buzz of winning wears off.
What determines this baseline is a blend of genetics and life circumstances.
Why is this important?
Because the pandemic depressed people’s normal baseline levels of well-being. Just getting “back to normal” made us all feel amazing. Covid lowered the bar. And not by a little. By a lot.
I’m getting back to the Harvard Study of Adulthood, I promise.
First, I have to read you a quote from a paper a couple prominent psychologists whose names are incredibly difficult to pronounce and kind-of irrelevant. No disrespect. Publish titled: Acheiving Sustainable Gains: Change your Actions, Not your Circumstances. They write:
“The effects of positive circumstantial changes (such as securing a raise, buying a new car, or moving to a sunnier part of the country) tend to decay more quickly than the effects of positive activity changes (such as starting to exercise, changing one’s perspective, or initiating a new goal or project).”
They go onto say, “Our data suggests that effort and hard work offer the most promising route to happiness.”
These assertions about working longer and harder support years of theories that state life is driven by having a sense of purpose, feeling that your life matters and that the world makes sense.
Still true today.
Now, here’s what 85 years of the Harvard Study has found as it relates to the key component to happiness.
After all those brain scans and questionnaires determined that is was not to work longer or harder.
And… turns out, happiness has little to do with weath or fame. Big surprise.
There’s one thing that matters most when it comes to happiness: Relationships.
The Harvard Study determined that strong, meaningful relationships keep us happier and healthier, period.
There are three main legs to this premise.
- Loneliness kills. If I person is experiencing a prolonged sense of loneliness, they are more likely to see their brain function begin to decline as soon as mid-life. And the study suggests that 1 in 5 Americans admit to being lonely.
- It’s the quality of your relationships, not the quantity. They looked at the participants as they reached the age of 50 and determined that those people who were happiest in their relationships at 50 became the healthiest 80 year olds.
- Good, strong relationships protect our bodies and our brains. People who are connected and feel like they can count on their partner experienced less mental decline. It was less about cholesterol levels and more about how satisfied and supported they felt.
Are you disappointed? I was when I read all of the research and watched a few interviews with Dr. Waldinger.
I guess I expected a ta-da moment. I wanted an A, B, C = Happiness quotient. And something I found conspicuously missing from all of this talk about happiness was the word Love. It’s barely mentioned.
Maybe we can assume that if you’re maintaining quality relationships, it goes without saying you will love these people and you will be receiving love from these people.
Here’s how Google breaks down the numbers when asked about happiness in 2023.
It was an article in Newsweek appropriately titled: By The Numbers:
33 – the general age that is considered the ‘happiest.’
$75,000 – the annual salary it takes to put a smile on the average person’s face.
25% – the percentage increase in happiness from having a close friend living nearby.
40% – the approximate percentage of your happiness that is truly up to you.
15.3% – as the percentage increase in your happiness if a loved one is happy.
Here’s a big one. 50% – the percentage of our happiness that is genetic.
Oh, and 37% – seems to be the percentage by which your happiness increases simply by wearing bright colors.
Look, the modern world wants a quick fix. Hey… we can all just wear yellow tomorrow.
Or… we can cultivate true connections. There’s your happiness quotient.
Connection x Engagement = Happiness (graded on a genetics curve?) I don’t know. Could work.
Here’s my take. I think it’s time to expand outward. We can do it in a responsible way.
Personally, I may be wearing a mask on an airplane for the rest of my life.
Let’s be honest, who wants to breathe the exhaust from hacker guy in the next seat?
A lot of us have gotten very good at being solitary.
Amazon will deliver…well, everything. Clothing for you, your kids, your dog, cosmetics, movies, electronics… all of it to your door with little to no interaction. Instacart for grocery’s, Uber Eats and Door Dash for cravings… I’m good, right? I got it working.
But it’s not really working. Not healthy. Not condusive to happiness.
There’s one more component to this relationship thing.
You can’t phone it in. Pun intended.
Getting together with your important people is critical, yes. Just as critical is giving those people your undivided attention. Be present. Pay attention. We gotta go all in with the understanding that real relationships are messy but worth it.
There you go. Life’s biggest riddle, signed sealed and delivered in a box that only took 85 years to arrive.
Who knows… maybe if I ordered it on Amazon Prime, it would have gotten here sooner.
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