Since 1938, Harvard researchers have tracked 724 men throughout their adulthood for a study on happiness.
The participants were teenagers with varied backgrounds, from the rich Harvard sophomores to the poorest Boston boys who didn’t have proper running water at home.
Just like the millennials today, most of them said that to have a good life, they should go after money, fame, or high career achievement.
Researchers then observed as the men’s lives unfold for 75 years.
It was quite comprehensive. They did questionnaires, personal interviews at home, they interviewed the men’s children and wives, they recorded the men’s conversations about their deepest concerns, they analysed the men’s medical records, blood profiles, brain scans and more.
The participants went on to become diverse members of the community, going towards both directions of the social ladder; they became factory workers, the US president, lawyers, bricklayers. Some tragically developed addictions or mental illnesses.
The Best Predictor of Happiness and Health
From this study, one important lesson about what makes for the good life emerges time and time again. Simply put, good relationships keep us happy and healthy.
People who are more connected to family, friends and community are physically healthier, happier and live longer. People who are isolated are less satisfied with life regardless of achievements, suffer diseases at younger ages, and have shorter lifespans.
The quality of relationships matters more.
Loneliness can occur even when people are well-known in the community, have lots of friends, and are married. The number of relationships matters less than the quality of close relationships. High-conflict marriages can damage health more than divorce. Living in deep, close relationships is protective to well-being.
Good relationships protect minds.
Deep relationships in your 80s delay the deterioration of brain functions. Satisfying relationships in the 50s are better predictors than cholesterol levels for overall health in the 80s. Inability to emotionally rely on spouses predicts earlier memory decline. Even if you bicker a lot, if you can rely on your loved one when things get tough, the arguments do not cause memory decline.
Although the lesson for this amazing study is simple, applying it is challenging:
Your long-term happiness and health are rarely the top priority of many companies
It’s not because others are selfish. They care about you, that’s why you are part of the company.
But your health and happiness are not quantifiable. They need to show the stakeholders numbers and graphs (e.g. profit margin, performance index). It’s the demand of many organisational cultures (1).
Their top priority is for you to hit the numbers, and yes, even it means putting your long-term happiness and health aside.
So, if you miss your children growing up, or suffer stress-related diseases when you’re young, or lose the deep connection with your spouse; your colleagues may care about you. But, as a company, those won’t be on the PowerPoint presentation in the next quarterly report.
The pragmatic response is not to blame them, but to accept that you can’t depend on them for the quality of your relationships and health.
You must make the hard decisions, negotiate ‘No’, and at times, prepare to endure criticisms.
You are going to forget how important this is
Although this might be the most important article you have come across in a while, you are going to forget reading it. I, too, will probably forget writing it.
Because we are humans.
When those crazy deadlines are approaching, or when our spouse upsets us, we will be tempted to lean away from relationships again. Because relationships are hard and underappreciated in the short-term. Being loving to your wife won’t show up in your CV, and there are no career promotions for being wonderful mothers.
You need to periodically remind yourself of what is most important in life over what seems important now.
Better still, share it with your loved ones, and ask them to remind you from time to time — tell them you are running a long experiment.
If they ask, ‘How long is this experiment?’, you can say:
‘Well, about 75 years.’
(1) It is true that materialistic cultures can be changed, but it is a whole another discussion. You may also find organisational cultures that seriously prioritise the well-beings of their workers. But this discussion is to address how to deal with organisations that are yet to adopt such a philosophy.