75-Year Harvard Study Reveals the Key to How to Lead a Happy Life

7 minute read

Smile. No, really, smile right now. Relax into the smile as it spreads across your face. Now, don’t you feel better? Well, it turns out there is actually science behind this sensory-emotional connection. A mountain of research has shown a link between happiness and good health, some direct cause and effect relationship between health and happiness, and others mere correlation, but whatever the connection, it is definitely there and researchers are anxious to untangle the relationship to find the true link.

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One such study of recent notoriety on the topic was a Harvard research study that has followed two groups of men over the course of 75 years. The case attracted a lot of attention because of its unique requirement of multiple generations of researchers.

The study followed one group of poor men growing up in Boston and one group of male Harvard graduates. The main finding: having good relationships keep us healthier and happier. The most significant finding was that having a support system and people to rely on supports our nervous systems, reduces emotional and physical pain, as well as helps our brain stay health for longer.

a group of friends playing music

Feelings of loneliness were linked to declined health and an earlier age of death. It does not necessarily have to be a romantic relationship; any connection will have the same impact; friends, family or a romantic partner. It is not all about number either. Quality over quantity is what matters, so a few close bonds will benefit you more than handfuls of random acquaintances.

What has already been observed and noted from psychological studies is that happiness is good for the heart. Heart rate variability was measured in relation to a patient’s self-reports of happiness. For people rating happier emotions, there was a 22% decrease in risk for heart disease, when measured ten years later. Another study exposed people to a cold virus and those with positive emotions were less likely to develop symptoms. More elated emotions are also related to higher antibody response, which indicates a robust immune system.

Happiness reduces stress. The happiest participants in a stress study showed a 23 percent lower level of stress hormones present in their body. Studies of chronic arthritis sufferers revealed that when in a positive mood, ached and pains are not as prominent. Over time, pain was gradually reduced; a great benefit for people is suffering from chronic diseases and ailments. There is a definite effect of optimism and happiness when it comes to battling sickness. We may not actually need all that medication out there with their unpleasant side effects.

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The benefits of sharing closeness to a person and feeling trust, vulnerability and depth allow people to feel truly bonded. Once here, they can reach a higher level of relaxation which is when the health benefits kick in. Having these bonds makes it more manageable to handle traumas or disasters in your life. Since stress is inevitable, the better we handle it, the healthier we stay. This serves as a good reminder to periodically evaluate the relationships in your life, prioritizing those that are really there for you and are not just a face on social media.

a senior couple dancing

Think about ancient practices that center on meditation and yoga. Pure calm and deep states of relaxation have, for centuries, improved overall health, well-being and longevity. The key to all this data is relaxing. What the Harvard study does is put this into a perspective we can all appreciate. You don’t have to do yoga or meditate daily (although it does certainly help) to keep stress at bay and keep your health up. Having trustworthy bonds with people equally provides support and a safety net, allowing us to be more comfortable and relaxed as we walk through life.

The way society is today would have us all believing that money is the root of all happiness. Everywhere you turn media outlets are showing the flashiest cars, jewelry, and big houses. While it is true that money can buy you a lot of stuff, that is all you get; stuff, material things, nothing of real substance. True inner happiness comes from connections and health. A recent U.S. study found that over the last 50 years, despite average incomes doubling, reported levels of happiness are no different.

Lack of true connection and solid relationships are instrumental in mental illness, specifically depression and anxiety. Economic researchers have discovered that if policymakers focused more on addressing mental illness rather than poverty, there would be a rapid decrease of 20% in depression and anxiety cases. The simple truth is that by focusing on the wrong factors, we are further contributing to the unhappiness of society.

Switching focus to address mental health needs, rather than financial needs, will be more rewarding than expected. Policies have long focused on poverty, unemployment, and education, but when focus is shifted to supporting those dealing with alcoholism, domestic violence, alienated youth, depression and anxiety, we see a marked improvement in the health and well-being of the individual involved.

a woman at the beach

Studies show that adult happiness and success is better predicted by a child’s emotional health rather than their school achievement. For the true betterment of our society, we need to re-evaluate what matters, and happiness (and subsequently health) needs to be the main goal.

The Bottom Line

The evidence clearly shows that to be healthy we need to be happy. To be happy we need to be loved. We don’t need fancy cars, mansions, private jets and millions in the bank. We need closeness and attachment. The first thing we learn and rely on is the attachment we form with our mothers and this gives us the stable ground we need to move forward. As we move through life, we still need this attachment and stability, so we connect with people accordingly.

Since study after study shows the link between happiness and health and we can’t buy happiness in a pill, we need to go out and make our own. Cherish times with your family and friends, keep in touch regularly, reminisce often and work to keep those bonds strong; the strength they have will reward you with a long, full and happy life.

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