Sunday October 16, 2016

Lessons from the world's longest study on happiness

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Listen 18:08

It's a question as old as time: what do we need to be happy? Dr. Robert Waldinger may have some answers.

Waldinger is a psychiatrist, psychoanalyst, and Zen priest. He is also the fourth director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, one of the world's longest-running studies on human happiness.

Robert Waldinger

Robert Waldinger is the fourth director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development.

The study began in 1938 and originally focused on two different groups of young men in their early to late teens. The first group were all Harvard college sophomores, chosen because they were believed to be the best and brightest. The second group came from the opposite end of the social spectrum, boys from Boston's poorest neighbourhoods.

Researchers checked in with these men every two years throughout the course of their lives to see how they were doing physically and mentally. Now, 75 years after it first began, the study has expanded to include the wives and children of the original group of men.

So what conditions help people live longer, happier lives? Waldinger shares these insights from his unprecedented study:

Good relationships protect your brain as well as your body

Good relationships are essential to your mental and physical health. Positive relationships reduce stress, which has many positive effects on health. This doesn't only apply to marital partnerships. Waldinger says positive relationships can be formed with friends, family and coworkers. "It really is about having one or more warm, close relationships that seems to be protective." He says that people who are more socially connected to friends, family, and community are happier and live longer than those who are not.

Taking care of your health is vitally important

Waldinger says that substance abuse and exercise are all powerful predictors of who is going to age well and stay happy. In short, do not smoke, do not abuse alcohol, and exercise regularly.

Education is protective

Education is connected to health and longevity. The Harvard men lived on average 10 years longer than their inner-city counterparts. However, 25 of the inner city men went to college and those men lived just as long as the Harvard men. Waldinger speculates that the conditions that support a person in getting and completing an education are the same conditions that will support that person in living a happy life.