What makes a good life? Lessons from the longest study on happiness

Every time I faced a difficult turning point in my life I thought: “I would love to be able to see all possible ways my life would have changed if I had chosen in a different way”.

Just like in the movie “Sliding Doors” with Gwyneth Paltrow where one could see a life of a woman developing in two different ways, only depending on one decision. But because this is unfortunately not possible, at least not nowadays, the only thing I can do is to use other people’s experience as orientation. In particular by asking myself: what did my parents/ sister / boyfriend / friend / most successful colleague did in similar situations? How did they decide and where did those decisions brought them?

It would be amazing if, in order to understand how to be happy in our lives, we could just look at a pattern of examples and analyze them. I am not talking about the Wikipedia summary of famous characters. I am talking about a very well described sample of lives, normal, ordinary lives, where everything is stated: working and personal experiences, but also health conditions as well as their overall emotional state.

It seems incredible, but such data exists. In fact, it is the longest study of human beings conducted so far!

Humans are the most difficult species to study

The reason why there are not so many studies on human behavior compared to other species, is that human beings are not easy to analyze. On average, we live longer than other animals, we have lower rates of reproduction, we have to give our consensus to the study so that it is difficult to recruit and keep volunteers, and, in addition, we have to be studied by ourselves: meaning a scientist will have the same life expectancy as the study’s subject… Therefore such a study can never be completed by a single researcher.

Moreover, the majority of the studies on human behavior is based on questionnaires. People are asked to recall events of their lives or feelings they had in the past, but all those details could have been forgotten or missed. People also tend to lie due to social desirability. This is something human beings do, and yes, they do it pretty often (if you don’t believe it, check this TEDx Vienna post about it!).

This is why this particular study of human behavior, performed by a group of researchers in Boston, is such a rare and incredible collection of information.

The Harvard Study of Adult Development

In fact, despite the difficulties, the scientists of the Harvard Medical University managed to follow the lives of 724 men for as long as 75 years in what is called “the Harvard Study of Adult Development”. In particular the participants were 268 Harvard students and 456 children from Boston from whom they periodically recorded the main life events and also the health conditions. They obtained this data with questionnaires and personal interviews not only with the members of the study, but also with their wives, their children, and even with their doctors in order to get a clear picture of their environment.

By analyzing all this incredible amount of data they found the secret of happiness: establish healthy and positive relationships.


In fact, the study indicated that the people who mostly spent lonely lives were in general sadder and showed also more health problems compared to the people who invested in social relationships. Moreover, unhealthy relationships such as oppressing marriages were actually worse than not having social connections at all. This suggests that the quality of relationships is vital for their beneficial effects.

In general, this study clearly points towards the importance of being an active part of a society. We are social animals, eventually.

What question would you like to ask?

Apart from this very important life principle, what else can be derived from this study? Now that we have such an amazing amount of data documenting the lives of 724 men, what other secrets can we reveal?

The researchers tried also to examine other factors such as alcoholism and physical health, type of childhood and adult adaptation, long-term effects of World War II involvement, and published different articles in subject-specific journals.

But the potential of the study is enormous!

One could for example look at the impact of education and professional success on happiness. We could also analyze the relationship between eating habits, health conditions, sport activities or life expectancy.Or maybe if we were happier in our 20ies or in our 40ies.

What kind of questions would you like to answer?

If you are intrigued by the topic and you are interested in finding an alternative way to use this incredible amount of data, learn more about the study in the TEDx talk by Robert Waldinger and get inspired!


Photo credits: Cover image by Pixabay

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