Study Reveals Key to Happiness, Leaves a Question Unanswered
Almost 80 years of research answers many but not all questions about happiness.
Posted June 11, 2017
Merry* was in her thirties and working at a job she loved. “My family is pushing me to find a husband. But that’ll happen if it happens. Meantime, I have friends and my work. I’m happy now.”
Arun* was married and expecting his second child. “I would like to have a better job,” he said. “I think it is important to be the best provider possible for my wife and my children.” His wife, on the other hand, said, “Arun is a very good man. That’s what’s important to me. He doesn’t have to make more money. But somehow, he doesn’t seem to think that I can love him or he can love me if he isn’t successful.”
Rosie* was a widow in her late eighties when she moved into a retirement community. “I’ve never had a lot of friends,” she said. “But I’ve always been able to find one person who was ‘my’ person. Once I find that person, I can settle into my life wherever I am.”
An almost 80 year longitudinal study out of Harvard offers a suggestion for happiness, but leaves one big question unanswered. The suggestion: The presence of meaningful relationships predicts our ongoing contentment in life more than anything else. The question: What makes a relationship meaningful?
Because of the length of the study, there have been several lead researchers. George Vaillant, the Harvard psychiatrist who led the study from 1972 to 2004, has written three books about it, discussing the lives of some of the men, the findings of the study, and the conclusions drawn at the different stages.
His take is pretty much the same as the current lead researcher, Robert Waldinger, director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, who says, "The clearest message that we get from this 75-year study is this: Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period."
The study actually consists of two separate inquiries whose results have been combined. The Grant Study has followed 268 Harvard college sophomores from the classes of 1939 to 1944. The Glueck Study has followed 456 “disadvantaged” inner-city boys who grew up in Boston between 1940 to 1945. In the longest longitudinal study of its type, the researchers followed these young men as they grew up and continues to follow them now. Evaluations occurred every two years, and included questionnaires, interviews, and blood tests.
One of the most glaring limits to this study, that all of the subjects are Caucasian American males, also makes this finding even more fascinating. The researchers know this is a problem. They have expanded the study to include women, and they are looking for ways to open it up to a diverse population. One problem, according to an article in the Washington Post this past April is that the current administration in Washington is cutting funding to this and any number of other studies.
But an important question remains unanswered. “What is a ‘good relationship’?”
I have spent the past two years gathering information about women’s friendships from a wide range of women of different nationalities, ethnic and religious backgrounds, and income levels. One thing I have learned is that while many men wish that they could have the kinds of friendships they see women having, and many women feel that their friends deepen and enrich their lives, many others feel inadequate or uncomfortable about their ability to be and have friends. But this study, flawed as it is, offers an important perspective on this anxiety about relationships.
In a blog on Inc.com, Melanie Curtin writes:
It doesn't matter whether you have a huge group of friends and go out every weekend or if you're in a "perfect" romantic relationship (as if those exist). It's the quality of the relationships—how much vulnerability and depth exists within them; how safe you feel sharing with one another; the extent to which you can relax and be seen for who you truly are, and truly see another.
According to George Vaillant, the Harvard psychiatrist who directed the study from 1972 to 2004, there are two foundational elements to this: "One is love. The other is finding a way of coping with life that does not push love away."
In psychological terms, pushing love away is a “defense,” that is, a way of protecting ourselves from uncomfortable feelings and thoughts. You might long for connection but feel too emotionally vulnerable when you start to connect that you have to do something to push the other person away, to break the link, or to prove that you are not really interested. Often the defense is so beautifully constructed that you have no idea that you are putting it up.
One clue that you are attempting to build a wall is criticism. You may feel it toward the other person (they aren’t really the kind of person you want to bond with) or toward yourself (you aren’t the kind of person they want). You might criticize the relationship itself (it isn’t deep or meaningful or exciting enough). The criticism may come from outside (your friends don’t like this person) or from the past (your grandmother would have hated this potential new friend); but you pay attention to it because it resonates with your own worries and provides a way of keeping this connection from making you feel too vulnerable. Your psyche is so subtle that you don’t realize that you have just made yourself more vulnerable, by rejecting a relationship that might have made you happy.
Here’s the deal, though. Not everyone needs to be married or in a long-term, intimate, relationship in order to be happy (PT’s Bella DePaulo has many wonderful posts on the truth about “living single” ).You don’t need to have a huge group of friends. Nor do you need to have deep, meaningful conversations with someone to be friends with them.
Friends can be people you do activities with—going to the movies, hiking, watching basketball. They can be people you see once every six months, and who you never talk to on the phone. The psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut suggests that for some people, relationships are secondary and often related to work or hobbies. In other words, relationships are different for all of us.
Perhaps the real truth of the Harvard study is what E.M. Forster writes in his book Howard’s End: “Only connect.” Whatever your connections are, however you make connections, what is important is that they work for you. Not that they fit with anyone else’s definition.
*Names and identifying information changed to protect privacy
Vaillant, GE (1977) Adaptation to Life, First Harvard University Press
Vaillant, GE (2002), Aging Well, Little Brown
Vaillant, GE (2012), Triumphs of Experience: The Men of the Harvard Grant Study, Belknap Press