Have you ever wondered what makes for a meaningful life? Philosophers have debated this for centuries, but now science has something to add. The current director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development shares the findings from this long-running, in-depth research on the factors that lead to happiness and a meaningful life.
The Harvard Study of Adult Development started with Harvard undergraduates in 1938. Before too long, the study expanded to include young men from underprivileged families in Boston. Over the decades, the researchers contacted not only the 724 original volunteers, but also their partners and their children to invite them to participate as well. The detailed questionnaires they filled out periodically provide a great deal of data on the factors that make for a good life. As the study proceeded, new methods also became available. In addition to chronicling the volunteers’ physical and mental health, their work life and relationships, the researchers also collected information on the performance of their hearts on a stress test, the length of their telomeres and their DNA.
Having such different sources for the initial cohorts allowed the scientists to examine the role of resources in shaping a meaningful life. What they found is that once basic needs are met, having more money does not make a person happier. As the Beatles sang, “Money can’t buy me love.” Consequently, privilege does not determine happiness.
There are at least two common ways to understand happiness. The first is the delight you might find in a hot fudge sundae. While hot fudge might not be your thing, everyone appreciates a bit of pleasure from time to time, whether it is the sight of sun shining through green leaves or the sound of a perfectly tuned wind chime. This hedonic happiness is short-lived.
Another approach is eudaimonic happiness. This is longer-term, and might best be explained as finding a way to make life meaningful. For the participants in the study, connections with other people were a keystone.
Some of the most miserable people in the study found ways to blame their partners or colleagues for their disappointments. Others derived great satisfaction from their relationships. Although the investigators found that trauma can take away our trust in the world, that can be restored if people have supportive relationships later with trustworthy people.
Generalizing broadly, study volunteers have two important pieces of advice for the rest of us:
1. Take care of your body as if you’ll need it for 100 years.
2. Take care of your relationships and remember that the community depends upon each of us.
Our culture glorifies extroverts, especially when the topic is relationships. Even though the party animals may do well in building lots of relationships, quieter, more introverted people with a few strong friendships can also thrive.
Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky has examined the question of what accounts for happiness. Her research indicates that perhaps 50 percent can be attributed to inborn temperament, while at least 40 percent is under our own control. Luck also plays a role. Happiness is an accident, but we can make ourselves more accident-prone in this regard.
Robert Waldinger, MD, is a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development at Massachusetts General Hospital, and cofounder of the Lifespan Research Foundation. Dr. Waldinger received his AB from Harvard College and his MD from Harvard Medical School. He is a practicing psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, and he directs a psychotherapy teaching program for Harvard psychiatry residents. He is also a Zen master (Roshi) and teaches meditation in New England and around the world. Robert is the co-author, with Marc Schulz, PhD, of the book The Good Life: Lessons From the World’s Longest Scientific Study on Happiness.