Our mothers always told us that money wouldn’t buy us happiness, but for some reason, we never believed them. We worked long hours and multiple jobs, competed doggedly for promotions, skipped vacations, made countless sacrifices, and scrimped and saved—all to buy better cars and houses and lives. But now, when we look back over our lives, did the fortune that we were able to achieve—or not—really impact our happiness?
According to an unprecedented 75-year-long Harvard study, apparently not. “The clearest message that we get from this study is that good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period,” says the current director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, Robert Waldinger, in his 2015 TEDxBeaconStreet Talk.
The project, which started in 1938, studied the lives of more than 700 young men, ranging from Harvard sophomores to boys who grew up in Boston’s inner city. Keeping track of these men over the course of three quarters of a century, the researchers found that the men who were the happiest turned out to be not those who were the most financially successful, but, instead, the ones who were the most successful in creating bonds with family, friends and spouses.
And these relationships didn’t just make the men happier; the bonds also made them healthier. Tracing the happiest octogenarians back to middle age, they discovered that “the people who were the most satisfied in their relationships at age 50 were the healthiest at age 80. Good relationships seem to buffer us from some of the slings and arrows of getting old,” explains Waldinger.
And it’s not the quantity, but the quality, of relationships that really matters. Having a close and caring relationship with one or two people trumps a dozen friends who will meet us for coffee but who don’t even know our middle name. Even if you bicker with your spouse or have conflicts with your siblings, knowing that that person has your back seems to create a protective environment that keeps us healthier longer.
This news is hardly earth-shattering. As Waldinger says, “It’s as old as the hills.” So why do we continue to pursue that brass ring with everything we’ve got and invest a whole lot less energy and effort on the people around us? According to Waldinger, because it’s only human nature to want an easy, non-messy route to the good life and relationships certainly aren’t that.
But, as your mother also probably said, “Nothing in this life worth having comes easy.”
While the Harvard study originally was restricted to men, it later included their wives and now has expanded to also include their children.