What’s the key ingredient for a happy, fulfilled life? Here are a few hints. It doesn’t lie in climbing the corporate ladder, nor does it lie in how much power you wield professionally. Forget about the material world; money isn’t the happiness-driver either. Give up? We’re looking for a one-word answer here, folks. That answer is love.
Really? Really. Decades of scientific research on the most effective happiness boosting components of life show that overall life contentment is steeped in human connection. “Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period.” That’s the bottom line from Harvard research director Robert Waldinger.
Enter the Grant and Glueck study. For more than 75 years, this Harvard-based study has tracked both the physical and emotional well-being of two distinct populations. The Grant component of the research focused on 456 men growing up poor in Boston over the years of 1939 to 2014. The Gluek component honed in on 268 male graduates from Harvard’s classes of 1939-1944.
As you can imagine, the duration of the research has required multiple generations of researchers. Beginning before WWII, scientists at Harvard have carried and passed the torch for what is now one of the longest longitudinal studies in the books. Researchers collected data by analyzing blood samples, conducting brain scans (once they were available), combing through self-reported surveys, and conducting in-person interviews with the subject men.
The resulting data are voluminous, but the takeaway isn’t. Researchers consistently found one factor in life satisfaction across the populations and over time – love. According to Harvard psychiatrist George Vaillant, director of the study from 1972 to 2004, two foundational elements underlie the findings: one is simply love, and the other is coping with life’s challenges in a way that doesn’t push love away.
Loving seems easy, but how do we push love away? Generally, it happens in the wake of a trauma. Say you’ve found love, but you lose a job, a parent, or a child, and you don’t deal with the resulting trauma, you could end up coping in a way that pushes love away. So while we want to prioritize love, we also need to nurture our capacity to process emotions and stress. If we’re not striving for emotional health, we could stunt our personal growth and make ourselves unavailable for connection.
Turning to the science of the love connection, the Grant and Glueck study has demonstrated that having another person to rely on has a significant physical impact on our bodies. When we have strong interpersonal connections, our nervous system relaxes, both emotional and physical pain diminish, and our brains stay healthier for longer. The flip side of the happiness-focused findings show that those who experience loneliness are more likely to undergo an earlier decline in their physical health and die younger.
According to Waldinger, happiness doesn’t come from the number of friends we have or whether we’re in committed relationships. Rather, the root is the quality of our close relationships. He comments that: “The good life is built with good relationships.”
In the end, it doesn’t matter how many friends we have on Facebook, whether we go out every weekend, or if our romantic relationship is perfect. Rather, the quality of the relationships trumps all. Factors like how much vulnerability and depth we share with others, how safe we feel, how well we can relax and let our true selves be seen, and truly see another, are what matters most.