What makes a happy life? | Sunday Observer

What makes a happy life?

5 February, 2023

Good relationships are more important than money and success for happiness, a new book based on the longest-running study of human happiness has shown.

The Good Life is based on the Harvard Study of Adult Development, which is among the longest-running adult life studies ever conducted.

The study tracked the lives of 724 Boston men for 80 years from 1938 and then went on to study their Baby Boomer children.

Robert J Waldinger, the psychiatrist and Zen priest who oversees the study, told DailyMail.com: ‘The biggest surprising takeaway is that good relationships don’t just make us happy as we go through life, but they keep our bodies and brains healthier and we live longer.’

The book is based on interviews that gauge ‘life satisfaction’ regularly through people’s lives - and turn many of our assumptions about what leads to happiness on their heads.

Waldinger’s TED talk, ‘What makes a good life? Lessons from the longest study on happiness’ has been watched 44 million times.

He says that the book - which came out in January - ‘takes a deep dive into the way relationships support our wellbeing’.

Below are some of the lessons about happiness in The Good Life:

Having friends makes you live longer

Social connection is strongly linked to health and a long life, the researchers say.

They point to a 2010 study that showed that people with strong social connections had a 50 percent greater chance of surviving any given year.

The researchers write: ‘These are very large associations, comparable to the effect of smoking or getting cancer. And smoking, in the United States, is considered the leading cause of preventable death.’

‘As time goes on, study after study, including our own, continues to reinforce the connection between good relationships and health,’ What society says will make us happy won’t.

Our society bombards us with messages about what will make us happy - from influencers flaunting wealth on social media to adverts.

But culture misleads people into thinking that a new car, job, or product will make them happy - and some of the most miserable people in the study were wealthy and ‘successful’.

The authors write: ‘Ads tell us that eating this brand of yogurt will make us healthy, buying that smartphone will bring new joy to our lives, and using a special face cream will keep us young forever.’

Participants in the study who don’t ‘make time’ for people found themselves isolated - and desperately unhappy.

One man slowly lost touch with his wife and children and ended up alone apart from a neighbor with whom he watched TV.

One culprit in this is the amount of time Americans spend on media, including television and social media, which now adds up to 11 hours per day.

The researchers said, ‘For someone who is 18, that’s twenty-eight years of life before they turn 80.

‘But most of us have friends and relatives who energise us and who we don’t see enough. Are you spending time with the people you most care about?’

Writing down who supports you can help

To build a healthy support network, the researchers advise writing down who supports you and who you support, in different categories.

Support can take the form of ‘Safety and Security’, ‘Learning and Growth’, ‘Emotional Closeness and Confiding’, ‘Shared Experience’, ‘Romantic Intimacy’, Hep’, and ‘Fun and Relaxation.’.

The researchers said, ‘Are there people in your life you want to support more? If you have people in your life who are caring for others, or who are under major life stress, are there ways you can be there for them, and make sure they are receiving support themselves?’

The authors said that happiness is not a destination but a process and that happiness is unlocked through working through tough times with people.

The study is filled with people who have struggles in their lives but who remain happy through their strong relationships.

The authors said, ‘The good life is joyful . . . and challenging. Full of love but also pain.

And it never strictly happens; instead, the good life unfolds through time. It is a process.

‘It includes turmoil, calm, lightness, burdens, struggles, achievements, setbacks, leaps forward, and terrible falls. And of course, the good life always ends in death.’

Take a W.I.S.E.R. approach

To help build your relationships with other people, the authors advise taking a ‘W.I.S.E.R.’ approach to problems.

This is Watch, Interpret, Select (a response), Engage, Reflect - taking time to think at each stage of your response.

The psychiatrist authors joke that this can be described as, ‘Don’t just do something… sit there!’

They said, ‘If we’re going to learn from our experience and do better next time, we have to do more than just live through it. We have to reflect.

‘Next time, we may be able to take that extra split second to consider the situation, clarify our goals, consider options for responding to it, and move the needle of our lives in the right direction.’

You can find happiness at any time

It’s common for people to feel ‘trapped’ in their unhappy lives or feel it’s impossible to make a difference in their lives.

One clockmaker in the study was trapped in an unhappy marriage all his life - but when he split from his wife at age 68 he began socializing daily with people from his local health club.

His happiness score went up to the highest possible.

Many participants in the study also had unhappy childhoods, or childhoods blighted by drunken or violent parents, but went on to achieve happy lives.

The authors said: ‘Your ways of being in the world are not set in stone. It’s more like they are set in sand. Your childhood is not your fate. Your natural disposition is not your fate. The neighborhood you grew up in is not your fate. The research shows this clearly.’

The Good Life and how to live it: Lessons from the World’s Longest Study on Happiness by Robert Waldinger and Marc Shulz is out now.

- Daily MAIL.uk