How does Love Affect Happiness?

Attachment love makes you happy, not marriage

Posted Mar 09, 2015

Wikipedia Commons
Source: Wikipedia Commons

Unlike marriage, love seems to increase happiness significantly.

This was the conclusion of a seventy-year long longitudinal study of two socially different groups: two-hundred and sixty-eight physically and mentally healthy Harvard college sophomores from the classes of 1939-1946, and a second cohort of four-hundred and fifty-six disadvantaged non-delinquent inner-city youths who grew up in Boston neighborhoods between 1940 and 1945. University president, Arlen V. Bock, a Harvard doctor took the initiative.

Back in those days doctors thought that physique, social standing and a blissful childhood were the most accurate prognosticators of human flourishing. The men who were chosen for the study had what the team considered a “masculine body build”: significant muscle mass, narrow hips and broad shoulders. The study participants were asked about masturbation and their thoughts on premarital sex. They were also measured for brow ridge, moles, penis function and the hanging length of their scrotum.

In 1947 the funding for the study was withdrawn. And the study progressed very slowly.

In 1966 George E. Vaillant, an American psychiatrist and Professor at Harvard Medical School, was put in charge of the study. He led the study for more than forty years. He also changed the direction. He followed the study participants’ success or failure in relationships, parenting and job career. He also looked at whether the volunteers had any problem with substance abuse and how they handled the death of a family member. His conclusion was unequivocal. In the book Triumphs of Experience: The Men of the Harvard Grant Study, which describes the conclusions of the study, he writes: “The seventy-five years and twenty million dollars expended on the Grant Study points to a straightforward five-word conclusion: Happiness is love. Full stop."

Vaillant found that the ability to be intimate with another person was one of the strongest predictors of health and happiness. Intimacy phobic and commitment phobic individuals were among the most unhappy and discontented individuals. But luckily these attachment patterns are changeable, and many study participants were able to change these patters at some point in their lifetime. Men who were disenchanted in their forties and fifties, having little luck in their love lives, and who in many cases had experienced failed marriages, were able to change their attachment style and find love and happiness in their sixties, seventies and eighties.

It was also found that romantic love wasn’t the only predictor of happiness. Other prognosticators included having close relationships with children, parents, siblings, friends and colleagues. So, romantic love is not the only route to happiness. Friendship love, companionate love, parental love and attachment love can get you there as well.

Vaillant’s conclusion that happiness is love is no doubt overly strong. The data do not quite support anything that extreme. For example, it wasn’t shown that love as such is a route to happiness. Unrequited love, love of a verbally abusive partner and obsessive love do not lead to happiness.

What then is the real predictor of happiness? The answer seems clear: Wholehearted and reciprocated love for a caring and lovable partner. Rational love leads to happiness. Irrational love does not. That is the real finding of the study. This is one of the reasons it is so important to regulate our emotions when they are harmful to us. We cannot achieve happiness while suffering from unrequited love, a love obsession, love for a malevolent person or other inner turmoil.

Berit Brogaard is the author of On Romantic Love