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The scientific secret to a longer and happier life


Close relationships have an important impact in our daily lives, by influencing our decisions and our behaviors in society. A study entitled “The Harvard Study of Adult Development” may be the longest study of adult life that's ever been done. This study lasted for 75 years and traced 724 men throughout their lives and analyzed impacts of relationship on the subjects. Every year, researchers contacted these men and questioned them about their work, their health, their family situation, not knowing how their lives would unfold.

Harvard Study of Adult Development:

This investigation persisted throughout several generations of researchers, which allowed for the research to prevail and lead to conclusions about relationships in our lives. The study started in 1938 with two groups of sophomores at Harvard College, these men finished their college degree during World War II and many went to war. A second investigation examined the life of young boys from Boston’s poorest neighborhoods. They were chosen because they were from some of the most troubled and disadvantaged families in the 1930s. These boys grew with this study and went on to become very different people, from factory workers, to lawyers, doctors, and even one soon to be President of the United States. Their different life journeys led them to very diverse developments, this study followed their progress and the impacts of their relationships.

Every two years, patients were called back, they were subjected to medical examinations (such as brain scans) and researchers analyzed their medical records. The examinations were followed by interviews of the subjects and their families in their homes in order to follow their broader lives, including their triumphs and failures in careers and marriage.

What were the conclusions?

After thousands of pages of research, analysis and years of development of the study, people were eager to find whether any major conclusions could be implied from the data retrieved.

The research allowed for the explanation of a fundamental part of the human experience and what truthfully makes us fulfilled as individuals. A true psychological breakthrough in terms of our own understanding of ourselves, how we should look at human happiness, and what we should invest in to live our best life.

The conclusion was: People with the healthier relationships throughout life (romantic, family and friendship), tend to live longer and happier lives.

“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” – said Robert Waldinger, director of the study, a psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital and professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

Although a seemingly obvious conclusion, the true beauty of this finding relies on just how relevant this variable seems to be.

The data analysis allowed the researchers to find that – when put face to face in a competition, fame and wealth seemed to have a lower impact on longevity and overall satisfaction in life, when compared to variables that tracked how healthy our relationships are. Meaning that, on average, getting famous or rich is a worst investment in terms of longevity, then investing in your community, friends and marriage.

However, even more fascinating were the comparisons between more objective variables, like IQ , Social class, and even genes. Which once again proved to be less relevant than connections and relationships with the people who accompany us through life when comparing the relative contributions of these two sets of variables in determining longevity and overall satisfaction in life. It was even found that in 50-year-old men, how satisfied they felt in their relationships was a better predictor of long-term health, than their cholesterol level.

At last, the study also looked extensively at marriages, and how important it is to have a good and stable marriage. It was found that good marriages have a protective effect on our mental health. People who were 80 years old and reported to have happy marriages, also tended to report that their moods didn’t suffer even on days in which the physical pain was more intense. The opposite was reported by elders who admitted having an unhappier marriage.

The worrying part of this study is the striking difference between its conclusions and what young people are sold every day as the recipe for happiness and longevity – like fame, money, or even perfect bloodwork analysis. The answer, as ironic as it may seem, is that our happiness, sustained wellbeing and even how much time we get to enjoy life on this earth, comes from how well we deal with the presence of our fellow human – and how much joy we derive from these connections throughout life.

“Loneliness kills” - said Waldinger – “It’s as powerful as smoking or alcoholism”.


João Castanheira & Rita Cordovil

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