For 75 years Harvard researchers followed the same 600+ people to determine what contributes to a long, healthy, and happy life. The Harvard Happiness Study is the longest study on health and happiness ever conducted and continues to this day. The Harvard Happiness study has two components: The Grant study, and The Gluek Study. The Grant Study follows 268 physically- and mentally-healthy Harvard college sophomores from the classes of 1939–1944. The second component The Glueck Study, includes 456 disadvantaged non-delinquent inner-city youths who grew up in Boston neighbourhoods between 1940 and 1945. All Subjects were male and of American nationality.
The men were interviewed every two years. Information was obtained from their physicians including health records, brain scans and blood samples. Tens of thousands of pages of participant questionnaires were collated regarding their mental and physical health, career enjoyment, retirement experience and marital quality. The goal of the study was to identify predictors of healthy aging.
What insights did the 75 year old study reveal? Below are the seven key factors identified.
Harvard Happiness Study: 7 Factors to a Happy, Long and Healthy Life
The Gluek study shows mortality rates of the inner-city participants at ages 68 to 70 whilst the Harvard participants (Grant) lived longer – 78 to 80. The exceptions? Glueck participants who graduated from college (only about 6%) were just as healthy as the Grant participants, even in old age. The studies suggest a lack of education could shorten someone’s life by as much as 10 years.
Multiple studies have confirmed the protective health benefits of education. And if you’re beyond your college years, continued intellectual stimulation at any age can prevent your mind and body from deteriorating.
2. Don’t Abuse Alcohol
Not suprisingly, alcohol abuse is the No. 1 contributor to disease and early death among all participants in both study groups.
Study researchers also discovered that alcoholism is involved in 57% of all participant divorces. Do bad relationships lead to drinking, or vice versa? This large study shows very few bad marriages actually led to alcoholism. Instead, participants developed an alcohol problem first, and then they sabotaged their relationships.
The harvard Happiness study lead investigator, Dr. George Vaillant, even concluded that, “alcohol is a cause, rather than a result, of life’s problems.” Just a few of these problems being depression and neurosis, which tended to follow alcohol abuse, rather than precede it.
For those participants diagnosed with depression by age 50, a whopping 70% were either dead or terminally ill by age 63.
3. Don’t Smoke
Aside from alcohol abuse, smoking cigarettes was the next greatest contributor to disease and early death for all participants.
Interestingly, America’s No. 1 tobacco company Phillip Morris was a major funder for the Grant Study. During those years, the participant questionnaires contained questions like, “If you never smoked, why didn’t you?” Despite the subliminal undertones, the study’s major funder couldn’t ignore the consequences and fatalities of smoking. Needless to say, Philip Morris isnt a sponser anymore…
4. Exercise and Maintain a Healthy Weight
In his book about the Harvard Happiness Study, entitled Triumphs of Experience, Dr. Vaillant challenges one of our most commonly held conceptions: exercise causes good health. He questions, “Might it not be the other way around? Healthy people exercise, but not necessarily that exercise makes people healthy.”
The study shows regular exercise in college predicted late-life mental health better than it did physical health.
Physical aging after 80 is determined less by heredity than by habits formed prior to age 50. It seems the key to growing old with grace and vitality, is more about our heatlhy habits than genetic makeup.
5. Relationships Rule.
When asked what he learned from over 40 years leading the Harvard Happiness Study, Dr. Valiiant says “The only things that really matter in life are your relationships to other people.” When asked again for a key takeaway from the study, Vaillant simply said: “Happiness is love. Full stop.”
In a recent TED Talk, Dr. Waldinger concluded, “Good relationships keep us happier and healthier”. After 75 years and $25 million spent, the result of the findings is that good relationships are important.
Not only did participants of both studies who reported having close relationships tend to be happier and healthier, but they also lived longer. Positive relationships are found to have a protective benefit, both physically and mentally, while bad relationships led to earlier physical and mental decline. Positive relationships can actually fend off perceived physical pain, whilst nightmarish relationships have a way of magnifying the pain.
While studying 75 years of records on over 600 people, Dr. Waldinger concludes, “people who fared the best are those who invest in relationships with family, friends and the community. On the other hand, investing in your career and striving for more success has little relevance in the longevity stakes.
6. The Key to Financial Success
According to the longitudinal study, the key to financial success above a certain level does not depend on intelligence, but rather on the warmth of relationships. Those who scored highest on the “warm relationships” measurements in the questionnaire earned an average of $141,000 a year more. Conversely there is no significant difference in maximum income earned by men with IQs in the 110–115 range and men with IQs higher than 150.
7. Develop Great Coping Strategies.
Now that study participants are well into their 80s and 90s, researchers have classified four adaptations of defense mechanisms that stretch across a lifetime. These categories include psychotic, immature, neurotic, and mature. The Hartvard study suggests the ultimate goal is to evolve from immature and psychotic (self-absorbed, power-hungry) to mature (altruistic, healthy emotional outlets).
The studies discovered that adopting ‘mature’ coping mechanisms was the most powerful predictor of “successful” aging across a lifetime. Poor coping skills generally lead to alcoholism, smoking, depression, and other unhealthy habits.
Dr Valliant says “it is social aptitude, not intellectual brilliance or parental social class, that leads to successful aging. Using these mature coping styles and, “making a lemon into lemonade”, is the most powerful predictor of successful aging.
In the Glueck Study, childhood industriousness predicted adult mental health better than any other factor including family cohesion and warm maternal relationships. Childhood industriousness is indicated by whether the boys engaged in activities including part-time jobs, chores, and involvement with school clubs and sports teams
While the study confirms that recovery from a lousy childhood is possible, memories of a happy childhood are a lifelong source of strength.
Harvard Happiness Study Results
The Harvard Study results reveal seven key factors necessary to live a happy, long and healthy life. Participants who only had three of the seven factors at age 50 were three times more likely to be dead by 80. The research shows you need more than 3 of the the seven factors to live a long life of health and vitality.
Whilst being fit and healthy are key factors, reading books and keeping your mind active is also important. So too, is the development of good coping strategies to help deal with the curve balls life throws at you. However, the most important factor of all is building and maintaining relationships. So get involved in the community, call your siblings, read books and laugh. Science Says!
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