The Secret to a Long and Happy Life

What does it take to a happy life? Money? Power?  And what will keep us alive longer? Lots of exercise, fresh air and healthy food?  You might be surprised.

An 80-year-long study by researchers at Harvard has found that the key to a long life is happiness. Good genes don’t hurt, researchers found, but the real key to longevity is forming and keeping good relationships.

“The surprising finding is that our relationships and how happy we are in our relationships has a powerful influence on our health,” said Robert Waldinger, director of the study, a psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital and a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. “Taking care of your body is important, but tending to your relationships is a form of self-care too. That, I think, is the revelation.”

It’s the people in our lives that make us happy, researchers found, much more than big homes, fancy cars and other material goods.  Having close relationships with family and friends seem to protect people from unhappiness. Strong ties with others can hep delay mental and physical decline, the research found. In fact, strong relationships are better predictors of long and happy lives than social class, IQ and genes.

Scientists began the Harvard Study of Adult Development in 1938 to learn why some people live much longer and happier lives. They began tracking 269 Harvard sophomores that year, all male because at the time Harvard was open only to men. Over the years the study was expanded to include women, the children of the original test subjects, and control groups such as inner-city residents.

Other studies have validated the results of the Harvard study.   Several studies found that the measuring people’s satisfaction with their relationships was a better way to predict their health in later years than measuring their cholesterol levels. “The people who were the most satisfied in their relationships at age 50 were the healthiest at age 80,” Dr. Waldinger concluded.