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Trending Science: Happy New Year? Longest-running study on happiness has the key

An 81-year-old Harvard study offers sound advice on leading happy lives.

Fundamental Research icon Fundamental Research

Every year around this time, we make our New Year’s resolutions. We’ll take stock of 2019 and set goals for 2020. One of the most popular resolutions every year, no matter where we are in the world, is to fill our lives with happiness. In 1938, scientists started tracking the health of 268 Harvard sophomores as part of the Harvard Study of Adult Development that continues to this day. The research only included men at the time because Harvard didn’t admit women then. President John F. Kennedy was one of the original participants. The study has grown over the years. Today, it includes 1 300 of the original participants’ offspring. The researchers have amassed a large amount of data on their physical and mental health. They have been examining their lives overall, too, including career and marriage successes and failures.

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“The surprising finding is that our relationships and how happy we are in our relationships has a powerful influence on our health,” study director Robert Waldinger, a psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital and professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, told the ‘Harvard Gazette’. “Taking care of your body is important, but tending to your relationships is a form of self-care too. That, I think, is the revelation.” “When we gathered together everything we knew about them about at age 50, it wasn’t their middle-age cholesterol levels that predicted how they were going to grow old,” explained Prof. Waldinger in his 2015 TED Talk called What makes a good life? Lessons from the longest study on happiness. “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.” As of end-2019, the talk had over 14.8 million views on YouTube. Participants who nurtured their relationships lived longer and happier, while those who chose a lonelier path frequently died earlier. “Loneliness kills,” Prof. Waldinger said. “It’s as powerful as smoking or alcoholism.” “Good relationships don’t just protect our bodies; they protect our brains,” continued Prof. Waldinger. “And those good relationships, they don’t have to be smooth all the time. Some of our octogenarian couples could bicker with each other day in and day out, but as long as they felt that they could really count on the other when the going got tough, those arguments didn’t take a toll on their memories.”

Growing old matters when you’re young, too

Ageing doesn’t start later in life, but from very early on. People should look after themselves throughout life. “Aging is a continuous process,” Prof. Waldinger said. “You can see how people can start to differ in their health trajectory in their 30s, so that by taking good care of yourself early in life you can set yourself on a better course for aging. The best advice I can give is ‘Take care of your body as though you were going to need it for 100 years,’ because you might.”


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