Updated: 2 Dec 2017
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.
And just like the millennials today, most of them believed that to have a good life, they should go after money, fame, or high career achievements.
Researchers then observed these men’s lives unfolding for 75 years.
It was quite comprehensive. They did questionnaires, personal interviews at home, talked to the men’s children and wives, recorded the men’s deepest concerns, analysed the 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 have less life satisfaction regardless of outward achievements. They also suffer diseases at younger ages and have shorter lifespans.
The quality of relationships matters more than the quantity.
Loneliness can occur even when people are popular, well-known in the community, have lots of friends, and are married. The number of relationships matters less than the quality of close relationships. A high-conflict marriage can damage health more than a divorce. Living in deep, close relationships is protective to well-being.
Good relationships protect the mind.
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.
The lesson of this amazing study is simple, yet applying it is challenging in the modern culture.
Lifelong happiness is rarely the top priority in workplaces
It’s not because others are selfish. They care about you to a certain degree, that’s why you are part of the company.
But your health and happiness are hardly quantifiable. Capitalistic culture demands numbers and graphs (e.g. profit margin, key performance index). The top priority is you hitting the numbers, and yes, even if it means putting your lifelong happiness and health aside (1).
So, if you miss your children growing up, or suffer stress-related diseases too early, or lose the deep connection with your spouse; your colleagues may genuinely 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 and negotiate ‘No’ more times than you’d like. It is not easy. In fact, the better you are at your job, the harder it becomes because more people will rely on you.
At times, you must prepare to endure the pain, especially when others look down on your performance numbers, implying that you don’t work hard enough like those top workers, or when they question how you manage your life.
Don’t overlook those criticisms. More often than not, they expose the areas where you can and need to improve. But don’t accept them blindly either, particularly when they compare you with others. You don’t know the hidden variables, you don’t see all the advantages and disadvantages that they have accumulated in every facet of their lives.
Use excellent individuals as inspirations, not as deceptive comparisons. Clarify what success means to you, and forge your own path towards it.
Keep reminding yourself how important happiness is
Although this might be the most important idea you have ever come across, 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 family upsets us, we will be tempted to lean away from relationships, and more towards our career.
Relationships are, by its very nature, hard and underappreciated in the short-term. Little acts of love 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, rather than what seems important now.
Better still, share this awareness with your loved ones, and ask them to remind you from time to time. Tell them you want to focus more on them because you are running a very long experiment.
If they ask ‘How long is this experiment?’, just say:
‘Well, about 75 years.’
(1) I know, you can find organisational cultures that seriously prioritise the well-being of their workers. And it is true that materialistic capitalism can be changed, and it should be changed, but that is a whole another level of discussion. Here, we address how to deal with organisations that are yet to adopt such a philosophy.