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The 80-year study that asked: what really makes us happy?

What really makes us happy?

It’s one of humanity’s oldest questions. So how much time and energy would you spend trying to find the answer?

Would you spend days? Weeks or months? What about a few years? Surely not decades?

How about 80 years.


The 80-year research project on happiness

There’s research. And then there’s research.

Eight decades ago some people at Harvard University began a study. It’s called the Grant study and it began in 1939. The Grant study examined 268 Harvard graduates, men who by and large were doing ok during the Great Depression-era of the United States. In the 1970s the researchers initiated the Glueck study, which examined 456 men from poorer areas of inner-city Boston. Eventually, the research expanded to include the families of the men.

The study monitored a range of health indicators. It examined the link between a whole range of things, from dementia and cholesterol levels later in life to levels of alcohol consumption and the warmth of childhood relationships with mothers.

One of the key questions the study asked was this: what makes us happy? To find the answer it looked at an incredible number of factors over the decades, including blood samples, brain scans (once they were invented), surveys, interviews and more. The project lasted so long that successive generations of researchers took up the mantle as older academics retired.

After more than three quarters of a century, this continuous project came up with some interesting findings about happiness and wellbeing.

Robert Waldinger, a senior academic and director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development put it as follows:


“The clearest message that we get from this… study is this: good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period.[1]


In other words, it’s not the amount of money we make. It’s not fame or recognition. It’s not our appearance. It’s not the car we drive or the house we live in or the clothes we wear. What matters is basically how close we are to other people.


What can we learn?

The findings of this colossal study are hardly surprising. Humans are social creatures at heart, who crave interaction, engagement and connection with others. The Grant and Glueck study supports this view. It found that close and meaningful relationship between people who are loved and respected tended to keep us healthier. Notably, it also found that people who felt lonely and isolated had a higher chance of suffering from ill health and even dying earlier.

So what can we learn from it?

Happiness comes from building good relationships with people. Good relationships are maintained by treating people well. You’re more likely to live a healthier and longer life by respecting the people you love. Be mindful of how others feel and be open to accepting diverse and new perspectives. And do your best to be an effective communicator because good communication is as much about talking as it is about good listening.


Need help? You can find support services in northern Queensland or complete a self-administered K10 test for depression and anxiety. You can also join the online mental health forum to talk with like-minded people.