It really should not have taken academic psychology so long to determine the key factors to happiness, especially because the results weren’t that surprising.* Money, beauty, and success are not quintessential, while compassionate giving of our money, appreciation of our actual looks, and the pursuit of personally meaningful goals are. Waiting for our parents to love us finally perpetuates feelings of being a victim while letting go of the past, forgiveness and gratitude propagate joy in the present. This is old news for psych-savvy people such as you and me, right?
But here is another piece of the puzzle, based on the findings of the truly long longitudinal and still on-going Harvard Grant Study that began in 1939. The study followed 268 male students for 78 years. The researchers predicted falsely that the students with masculine body types would become most successful. As it turns out, neither that, nor their socioeconomic circumstances, nor the students’ IQ correlated highest with success. It came as a surprise that something much more mundane mattered the most, something every Beatle fan and good parent has been suspecting all along: Love. Yes, it is true and supported by data now, “All we need is love." Those men who had a warm mother or good sibling relationships earned a significantly higher income than their less fortunate counterparts.**
Now back to happiness. The director of the study from 1966 to 2004, George E. Vaillant, looked at eight more accomplishments that went beyond mere monetary success. These were four items pertaining to mental and physical health and four to social supports and relationships. They all correlated with love, that is with a loving childhood, ones empathic capacity and warm relationships. Vaillant,
“In short it was a history of warm intimate relationships- and the ability to foster them in maturity- that predicted flourishing…”
“This is not good news,” you may say if you were heavily unloved in your past. But there is another important lesson to be learned from this grand Grant study. People can change. (So there, pessimists of the world!). In fact, it is never too late to learn how to give and receive love. The study shows that those students who were not loved in childhood but learned to give and receive love later on in their lives could overcome their disadvantage.
This is where I can relate. I had to overcome a mountain of problems, cross the desert without a drop of hope, face and embrace my fears and come out of my turtle shell, step by step, kiss by kiss, and frog by frog. It was tough, but I made it. In the end, I dared to be with a man who had something to give and who wasn’t afraid of my love either. By now, our three lucky beloved tadpoles are slowly growing into frogs themselves.
Why though does love heal almost all wounds and drive us right into happiness? I think mostly for two reasons, something I hope to see supported by data some day. First, being loved reduces our fear of the uncertainty in life. Scarcity, loss, pain will happen, but when we are being loved, all those difficulties seem surmountable. In fact, with the right support, difficulties can be viewed as opportunities for growth instead of as terrible monsters lurking in the dark. Second, loving others focuses our mind on something greater than our little Egos (http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/unified-theory-happiness/201212/life...). Love brings out the best in us. Who’s been known to rise to the occasion and act nobly when thinking of oneself? We become creative inventers, noble knights and heroines when we dare to care for someone else but us.
So love is it. What’s left to do is nothing short of engaging in a life-long learning process about how to form and maintain relationships. And don’t forget that love comes in many colors. You might love a partner, gay or straight, your kids, your neighbors, your community, your dogs or your goldfish. Just love. And if you do not quite know how, there are ways to learn it still, step by step, kiss by kiss, and breath by breath. (See also “Ten Building Blocks of Connection” p. 97ff in Chapter Six: Connection in www.AUnifiedTheoryofHappiness.com).