Mountains of money can make us happy right? Having access to all of life’s riches and luxuries, or being, famous, admired or accomplished – that surely must be the gateway to ultimate fulfillment?
You probably have heard the quote about how money cannot buy happiness but
“It is still better to cry in a Ferrari than on the bus” – Francoise Sagan
Maybe it’s true, but then again there might be a bit more to life after all.
It was 2015 and I had a particularly turbulent year. It was a time that I made hard life-changing decisions although, at the time of making them, the situation was less than ideal. I was beyond tired, broke to the bone and a fresh single mom – not the plan I envisioned for my life! It was towards the end of that year that I stumbled across this TED Talk on the meaning of happiness. After watching it I knew that the hard decisions I was making, was the right ones! The message had such a profound effect on me that it stayed with me until this day. I have two young daughters and I made them watch this twice already. No complaining or getting out of it! They had to sit and listen. I believe this to be a crucial message, and I want everyone I care about to be exposed to it.
So what is the secret to a happy and healthy life and what can we do to get it right?
Imagine you can travel into the future and check how your life panned out based on all of the decisions you have made so far, or that you can get a second chance armed with some knowledge after the fact? We have not perfected time travel yet, but a Harvard Study of Adult Development — tracked the lives of 724 men for 75 years, in one of the longest studies ever done on adult development. It specifically looked at happiness and health, and whether it could be predicted in the lives of the people studied. The study followed the men since they were teenagers in 1938 (and seem to be still ongoing today with about 60 men, now in their 90’s).
The group included men from various economic and social backgrounds, from Boston’s poorest neighbourhoods (young men aged between 11-16) to Harvard undergrads (all of which were about 19 years old at the time) – President John F. Kennedy was part of the original group. Over the years, the researchers have collected all kinds of health information, and every two years they ask members questions about their lives including their mental and emotional wellness, also interviewing family members. Since then, a second-generation study subsequently kicked off in 2015, studying the children of the original group, now considering the effect of childhood experiences on midlife health.
Psychiatrist Robert J. Waldinger, the study’s director and principal investigator, shared some of the major lessons in this popular TED Talk (What makes a good life? Lessons from the longest study on happiness). Please take the time to watch this with me if you can, it will be time well invested.
Although the results are not surprising, the effect and impact are deeper than one imagines. What are your top tips for a happy life now that you have the hindsight of 75 years on the lives of 725 men?
Here are my top 5 takeaways taken from the lessons gleaned from this groundbreaking piece of research:
- Life is about good quality, steady and trusting relationships, where you feel safe!
- Happiness comes when you let go of past failures and disappointment’s and focus on what makes you happy now, today
- Loneliness kills! No one is made to be alone. That is not to say that marriage or having a partner is the only way to find connection. It also refers to kindness from and towards each other, and a connectedness to friends, people and communities. According to the study, it is the quality of your close relationships that matter and the level of support it brings into your life, not the quantity.
- The research also shows that prolonged unhappiness, especially in your close relationships can shorten your life. It can also intensify the level of physical pain you experience or endure in old age (where good relationships can alleviate physical pain), and it impacts on your brain – the sharpness of your memory over time!
- It is important to build and cultivate quality connections, but equally important is learning how to effectively process stress. This means doing what is necessary, getting help where required and taking a break when needed. Not positively dealing with stress or not coping with life’s setbacks proactively can result in behaviours that push love away. It seems that after all, a 75-year-old study shows that it is indeed love that makes the world go round!
Building relationships is constant hard work. If you are always short on time and your priorities are getting mixed up, ask yourself if you are perhaps building coping mechanisms to escape from unhappy relationships. In the end, what you get may sometimes be a reflection of what you give.
It is time to reassess your behaviour or the quality of your closest relationships? I don’t think it is ever too late if your happiness depends on it!