Life Leafs

The revelation of the longest study of happiness : Relationship

About the study

In 1938, scientists began tracking the health of 268 Harvard sophomores during the Great Depression to find clues to healthy and happy lives. Among the original recruits were eventual President John F. Kennedy and longtime Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee. Scientists eventually expanded their research to include more than 1,000 people to find out how early-life experiences affect health and aging over time.

Some participants went on to become successful businessmen, doctors, lawyers, and others ended up as schizophrenics or alcoholics, but not on inevitable tracks. During the intervening decades, the control groups have expanded. In the 1970s, 456 Boston inner-city residents were enlisted as part of the Glueck Study, and 40 of them are still alive. More than a decade ago, researchers began including wives in the Grant and Glueck studies.

How it was studied ?

Researchers gathered data about the participants, including vast medical records and hundreds of in-person interviews and questionnaires. Over the years, researchers studied the participants’ health trajectories and their broader lives, including their triumphs and failures in careers and marriage.

Findings of the Study : The Relationship

The study produced some startling lessons.

  • It found a strong correlation between men’s flourishing lives and their relationships with family, friends, and community.
  • The surprising finding is that our relationships and how happy we are in our relationships has a powerful influence on our health,” said Robert Waldinger in a TED talk, the fourth director of the study, a psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital and a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. “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.” says Robert Waldinger,
  • “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,” said Waldinger in a popular TED Talk. “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.”
  • Part of a study found that people who had happy marriages in their 80s reported that their moods didn’t suffer even on the days when they had more physical pain. Those who had unhappy marriages felt both more emotional and physical pain.
  • Those who kept warm relationships got to live longer and happier, said Waldinger, and the loners often died earlier. “Loneliness kills,” he said. “It’s as powerful as smoking or alcoholism.”
  • “Good relationships don’t just protect our bodies; they protect our brains,” said Waldinger in the TED talk. “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
  • Psychiatrist George Vaillant, who joined the team as a researcher in 1966, led the study from 1972 until 2004. Trained as a psychoanalyst, Vaillant emphasized the role of relationships, and came to recognize the crucial role they played in people living long and pleasant lives. “When the study began, nobody cared about empathy or attachment. But the key to healthy aging is relationships, relationships, relationships.” says George Vaillant

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