Harvard Researchers Tell Us How To Live Longer, Happier Lives

While people are wonderfully unique in what they want from life, there is one life goal we share– happiness. One of humanity’s greatest documents, The Declaration of Independence, boldly proclaims the pursuit of happiness to be one of our inalienable rights.

And happiness does indeed need to be pursued, doesn’t it? It can take real effort to find out what makes us happy and figure out how to do those things often.

In my book, You Can Retire Sooner Than You Think, I talk a lot about happiness. I explore the value of engaging in hobbies that you love (which I call “core pursuits”), and that bring you ultimate happiness. And I’ve detailed how happier folks tend to live longer, healthier lives.

Don’t just take my word for it. Consider a recent Harvard study that followed 800 people over their lifetimes to see what brings folks happiness, health, and longevity over time.

I know. There is so much “self-help” advice out there that any news on how to live a good life seems like white noise. But this data is different. The Study of Adult Development actually tracked people from youth to advanced age with one goal: to determine what makes us thrive.

The study integrated three different subsets of older men and women. One group consisted of 268 socially advantaged Harvard graduates born about 1920.  The second set of subjects was made up of 456 socially disadvantaged “Inner City” men born about 1930. The third group was a sample of 90 middle-class, intellectually-gifted women born about 1910.

The researchers identified six key factors to happiness, health, and longevity. While some of their findings are no-brainers, others may get you thinking about how you could implement some positive change in your life.

1. Childhood Happiness

The study made some interesting findings about the importance of our formative years.

The first is that the good parts of our childhoods influence our futures far more than the not-so-great parts. The second piece is that the love a child received was much more predictive of their adult income than the social class in which they were raised.

And, according to the data, it’s never too late for love. Many study subjects who had had tough childhoods but found love later in life with a spouse or close friend went on to lead terrific lives. Sure, a warm childhood aided folks in achieving life happiness, but it was not found to be essential.

I think this is a fantastic finding. It indicates that folks who had a less-than-perfect childhood can still achieve success and happiness.

2. Education

You probably won’t be surprised to hear that, on average, the Harvard participants were healthier at age 70 than the underprivileged, “Inner City” men. But there is a twist: when researchers compared data from only the participants who had attended college at all, the differences disappeared.

“The health of the college-educated Inner City men at 70,” says Professor Vaillant, “was as good as that of the Harvard men at 70. This was in spite of the fact that their childhood social class, their tested IQ, their income, and the prestige of their colleges and jobs were markedly inferior to those of the Harvard men. Parity of education alone was enough to produce parity in physical health.”

So pursuing more education appears to lead to better habits and happier, healthier lives. Researchers chalk this one up to the more education that participants obtained, the more likely they were to make healthier lifestyle choices.

Which brings us to…

3. Avoid smoking and alcohol

We all know that drinking in excess and smoking are bad for our health. And, it will likely come as no surprise that smoking was found to be, hands down, the biggest predictor of health.

The good news: the study found that if even the heaviest smokers quit puffing by about age 45, the effects of smoking could no longer be discerned at 70 or 80.

As with love, it’s better late than never when it comes to quitting smoking.

Now, as for alcohol, researchers found that drinking excessively will not only impact your health, it can also dampen your overall happiness. Why? Because it has the potential to screw up relationships. The study found that alcohol abuse consistently predicted unsuccessful aging, in part because alcoholism damaged future social supports.

It’s okay to imbibe every now again. Just don’t let it become problematic in your life or in the lives of those around you.

4. Use Your (Good) Coping Skills

Our coping skills are the mental tools we use to respond to painful or difficult thoughts and feelings produced by being a part of everyday life. We all have coping skills – some are just more effective and healthier than others.

Among the negative coping skills are blaming others, being passive-aggressive, living in denial, acting out or retreating into fantasy are what are called “maladaptive coping mechanisms.” In short, these “bad” behaviors are associated with undesirable outcomes, like strained relationships and poor life decisions.

Healthy coping mechanisms include things like practicing altruism, striving to see the bright side of things, making the best of every situation, and keeping a sense of humor.

Just how we cope with life’s inevitable problems (i.e., which coping skills we use) has far-reaching, long-term consequences to our overall health and happiness, according to the Harvard study.

5. Relationships

The ability to maintain a social circle of healthy relationships is critical to graceful aging, according to the study results. The ability to deal successfully with other people is a major predictor of happiness. Study participants who shared themselves with friends and gratefully received support from others were the happiest members of the group.

The researchers noted that it’s critical as we age to maintain our network of social connections. New relationships must be started and nurtured as older friends fade out of our lives.

This point is precisely what I found in the research for my book. Those retirees who were socially active and had several close friends and family members were much more likely to consider themselves happy. On the other hand, retirees who rarely engaged in social events and had more solitary pursuits ranked themselves as less happy than their social butterfly counterparts.

6. “Generativity”

Generativity means giving back. It means sharing your talents and knowledge with others to help strengthen the community.

Research has shown that while young adults are driven by a desire for personal achievement and professional accomplishment, older adults derive more happiness and satisfaction from serving their community.

In the Harvard study, men and women at 50 who actively gave back to society were three to six times more likely to be happy and healthy in old age instead of sad and sick. A history of giving back tripled the likelihood that a participant would be happy in their 70’s.

Again, this point tracks with my research on the happiest retirees. I’ve preached that it’s good for you and good for the community to volunteer your time doing something you’re passionate about. This research goes to show that giving back benefits both your mind and your body.

The Harvard study confirms that the secret to happiness in our later years really isn’t a secret – take care of yourself, stay socially connected, and give back. All good advice for living a joyful life at any age, isn’t it?

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