June 30, 2009

World's Oldest Case Study on Happiness

What's the secret to happiness?

There have been countless studies and reports aimed at discovering the answer. The latest finding on the subject is a 72-year-old study that started back in 1937 at Harvard University. It involved 268 students who were asked to participate in a study that would measure the "ideal mix of love, work, and adaptation for a good life."

The participants continue to be followed as they grow old and die, and the study has been maintained to this day. And the lessons learned from the results are illuminating...

First, the happiest people in the study had a healthy outlet for their fears, doubts, and struggles. They funneled their energy into sports, were altruistic, or had a good sense of humor. The study found that people can get away with fears and worries for years, but eventually they'll crack. So if you haven't done it already, develop an outlet: find a sport, commit to helping others, lighten up, and laugh more often. Great advice.

Next, don't take life too seriously. We all have weaknesses, but do you really want to do battle with your dark side year after year? Maybe it's time to lay down your arms, take a deep breath, and enjoy life. It's shorter than you think.

And finally, happiness must be shared. The movie Into The Wild, adapted from the excellent book by Jon Krakauer, tells the true story of Chris McCandless, who sold all his belongings and ventured into the wilderness. He wrote these last words in his journal before dying of starvation, "Happiness only real when shared." The 72-year-old study found the same truth: people who spent too much time alone struggled. The happiest subjects were the ones who sustained healthy, meaningful relationships with family and friends. You can never give enough hugs or say "I Love You" too often.

So give someone a hug today. A good hug is a tonic. Take a deep breath. And remember to laugh. You can read an article that gives a great summation of the study here.

Do these findings ring true for you? Is there a secret to happiness? Is our culture obsessed with it? Please leave your thoughts and observations in the Comments section.


Ellen said...

Good post. Great reminder! Send this to me again next Monday. Then every Monday.

Stacey said...

I love that Ellen has a picture with her dog - the benefits of sharing affection are conferred by all animals!

All of the points in the study were wonderful - thanks so much for sharing it!

For me the secret to happiness is having fun! I write all about it in my new E-Book - Rx: Humor! I hope you will read it! You can find it at my blog or website. :)

Marylyn said...

The thing is, though, that PART of "happiness" is being able to accept it when things AREN'T going your way; also to accept it when you're in a bad mood. Happiness is more like a capacity you have at-the-ready, rather than a steady state. In some Buddhist texts, they call it "joy," this capacity. You can increase it (supposedly) and it will underlie everything you do and feel. It certainly doesn't mean always getting what you think you want.

Betsy Talbot said...

I've always thought the key to happiness is adaptability. Things change, and being adaptable to the circumstances gives you a far greater chance of overall happiness than trying to live a perfect life or searching for a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow.

This has served me well through several big moves, life changes outside my control, family matters, and job issues.

It is not what happens to you but how you choose to respond to it that distinguishes a happy person from an unhappy person.

Lee Ryan said...


I didn't follow your link, but the cover story for The Atlantic discussed this same study.

Good stuff! Good Post!

Michele said...

My advice? Play. Adults forget to play. When you are playing, you forget about all the grown-up stuff like bills and chores and work related stress. Also, it is nearly impossible to play and not have a smile on your face.
Play with your pets, your favorite person, and/or your kids or grandkids (or the neighbors kids if you don't have any). Get dirty, or wet, or grass stained and LOVE it!
That is My Advice for happiness, from a very happy 41 year old.

calimama @ compactbydesign said...

Now why can't studies like this make the front page of Yahoo? Everyone needs to be reminded of the simple truths.

My husband and I loved the movie Into the Wild. We even committed to watching it once a year just as a reminder or check-in to ensure we were living our lives to the fullest extent and in a manner that was honest to ourselves. Can't recommend it enough!

Angela said...

Ellen- Ha! I don't think I'll remember to send you the post every Monday, but it IS a good reminder. I have to actively remind myself to be grateful every day, and it works.

Stacey- I agree that having fun and the day-to-day treats are a big part of your overall level of happiness and satisfaction.

Marylyn- I agree. We should be able to accept grief, bad moods, etc. They're all part of life and being human and make other experiences richer and more poignant. I'm very skeptical of anti-depressants and drugs, although I know some people need them, etc. I think it's partly a refusal to accept the realities of life being about pain and loss. It is. But as you infer, I believe we have a muscle we can exercise, to help us get out of the bad mood, feel better, be of service to others, etc. It's a learned/trained thing. I've seen it more often in a person who's negative- they don't realize that all their reactions are negative, it's just the way they've been "trained" to respond to events, life, etc. I think we can train ourselves to get out of bad moods pretty fast. Grief is another matter. I completely believe we have to let it play out and be patient with ourselves, and sadly some things can't be gotten over. I consider myself a very optimistic person, but when I hear or read about a person who watches their whole family being murdered, for example, I don't know how you go on from that. Women in the Middle East who are raped, and then outcast, and blamed, etc. I don't know how people carry on. It's something that's always amazed me. I don't think I have that kind of strength or survival instinct.

Betsy- Yes, adaptability is the amazing and unique thing about humans. When people "adapt" and accept impossible situations that they could otherwise change, it can actually be a negative quality, but most of the time it works very well for us.

Lee Ryan- Thanks! And thanks for coming by. Your blog looks really cool and I'm anxious to go back and check it out when I have more time. Yes- I'm knocking myself on the forehead that I didn't mention The Atlantic- that's the origin of the article.

Michele- Great advice. We don't have kids, and every time I hang out with our niece and nephew or our friends' kids, I'm rejuvenated. And it's great to give yourself permission to do it even when there are no kids around.

Calimama- yes, what I love is that it's so simple. It's all about being grateful, and laughing, and sharing life with those you love. So basic, but so easy to get wrapped up in other things. If you haven't read the book, it's also devastating (in a good way). I'm a big fan of the movie- Hal Holbrook killed me and I think it was the best he's ever been, he should be very proud of the performance. And I actually have worked for that editor and I think he and Sean Penn made a beautiful, thoughtful, soulful film.