Although each of us might define happiness differently, it’s something we all desire. Many of us wait for and depend on the incredible moments in life – getting a promotion at work, falling in love, or going on vacation – to experience happiness. While there will always be highs and lows in life, we all have the potential to experience contentment (nearly) every day.
So what’s the key to happiness?
Harvard researchers explored this fundamental question, studying how we grow and change, what we value as we age, and what makes us feel fulfilled. The study, known as the Harvard Grant Study followed 268 male Harvard graduates from the classes of 1938 to 1940 for 75 years. And here’s what they found:
- Connection is everything
The only thing that truly matters in life is your relationships – your connection with your family, your friendships and romantic relationships. It’s not about how many friends or relationships you have; it’s the depth of those relationships – how vulnerable and authentic you can be with each other and if you feel truly accepted and understood.
“It’s not just the number of friends you have, and it’s not whether or not you’re in a committed relationship,” says Robert Waldinger, director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development. “It’s the quality of your close relationships that matters.”
2. Money and power do not lead to greater happiness
Confirming results from previous studies, more money does not mean greater happiness. That being said, career success and work satisfaction do play a role, but it’s a small part of a much bigger picture. Overall, when the men in the study reflected on their lives, money was viewed as less important compared to love and relationships.
“We found that contentment in the late 70s was not even suggestively associated with parental social class or even the man’s own income,” says George Vaillant, the Harvard psychiatrist who directed the study from 1972 to 2004. “In terms of achievement, the only thing that matters is that you be content at your work.”
3. Despite hardships in early life, we all have the potential to be happier
Compared to other men in the study, Godfrey Minot Camille had one of the toughest childhoods. At age 75, however, he turned out to be one of the happiest overall. The reason? He said love healed him.
Before there were dysfunctional families, I came from one. My professional life hasn’t been disappointing—far from it—but the truly gratifying unfolding has been into the person I’ve slowly become: comfortable, joyful, connected, and effective. Since it wasn’t widely available then, I hadn’t read that children’s classic, The Velveteen Rabbit, which tells how connectedness is something we must let happen to us, and then we become solid and whole.
As that tale recounts tenderly, only love can make us real. Denied this in boyhood for reasons I now understand, it took me years to tap substitute sources. What seems marvelous is how many there are and how restorative they prove. What durable and pliable creatures we are, and what a storehouse of goodwill lurks in the social fabric. . . I never dreamed my later years would be so stimulating and rewarding.
Camille’s experiences prove that life’s setbacks, and the outlook they give you, can make you happier in the long run. The hardships he endured, and the love he found along the way, shaped him into the man he is today.
The bottom line: “Happiness is love. Full stop,” says Valient.