The Secret to a Healthy, Happy Life

The secret to a healthy, happy life has nothing to do with fame, money, or hard work.

The secret to a healthy, happy life has nothing to do with fame, money, or hard work.

Pharmacists are trained to improve patients’ health through their medications, but they can also remind patients to stay adherent to their relationships with friends, family, and fellow community members.

That’s the key takeaway from the Harvard Study of Adult Development, which has tracked a cohort of 724 men over a 75-year time period and may be the longest study of adult life ever conducted.

“Studies like this are exceedingly rare,” said psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Robert Waldinger, MD, director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, in his TED Talk about it. He noted that most longitudinal studies like it fall apart due to participant drop out, lack of funding, or lack of interest on the researchers’ part.

However, around 60 of the study subjects are still alive (most are in their 90s), and Waldinger is the fourth director of the project. The study now involves some 2000 children of the original participants, as well.

Back in the late 1930s, the first researchers behind the study found 2 groups of men to enroll in the project. This initial group was comprised of sophomores at Harvard College. Most of them ended up serving in World War II.

The second group was made up of boys from Boston’s poorest neighborhoods, as the researchers specifically wanted to study children from troubled families. Many of the boys lived in tenements and did not have running water.

Dr. Waldinger said both groups were interviewed and their medical records were collected. Some of them grew up to be doctors, factory workers, and even President of the United States. (John F. Kennedy was one of the chosen Harvard College sophomores.)

Some of the men became alcoholics, and a few of them developed schizophrenia. A few climbed the social ladder, while others fell down it.

Dr. Waldinger mentioned that every 2 years or so, the researchers contacted the men for a new set of questions. Many of the inner-city Boston men have asked why they still care about studying them, since their lives aren’t all that interesting.

“The Harvard men never asked that question,” Dr. Waldinger said in the TED Talk.

In addition to the questionnaires, the researchers interviewed the men in their living rooms, scanned their brains, drew their blood, and videotaped them talking about their concerns to their spouses. (Some of the spouses also joined in the study.)

While many individuals say their goals are to earn more wealth, get famous, or succeed in their job, none of these issues were critical to happiness or health among the study participants.

“The clearest message we get from this 75-year study is this: good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period,” Dr. Waldinger said.

Dr. Waldinger added that the more isolated an individual is, the less likely he or she is to be happy. In addition, lonely individuals see their health decline earlier in life, and their brain function declines sooner, too.

“At any given time, 1 in every 5 Americans will report that they are lonely,” Dr. Waldinger said.

More socially connected individuals are physically healthier and live longer.

Dr. Waldinger also emphasized quality over quantity of friends. In addition, a marriage full of chaos and no affection is worse for one’s health than divorce.

He said that at age 50, those who were most satisfied in their relationships were the healthiest at age 80.

Those with harmonious partners who experienced physical pain in their 80s report that their mood stays the same despite the pain, while patients who aren’t happy with their partners report that their mood is negatively affected by pain.

“Good relationships don’t just protect our bodies; they protect our brains,” Dr. Waldinger explained.

If people feel like they can count on their partner, their memories tend to stay sharper and longer than those who feel like they can’t.

Dr. Waldinger noted that couples can still have rough patches and bicker—it doesn’t have to be a smooth relationship all the time. What was most important was the feeling that their partner had their back when the going got tough.

“This wisdom is as old as the hills,” Dr. Waldinger recognized. However, most people want a quick fix to health and happiness, and many might not realize how important social connections can be. He suggested leaning into relationships instead of work.

A few of Dr. Waldinger’s tips to improve relationships with others included finding new friends to replace coworkers after retirement, replacing screen time with “people time,” making a stale relationship exciting by trying new things together, and reaching out to family members who have been absent.

The New York Times also recognized some other Harvard Study of Adult Development findings over the years, which included that the best way to age physically was to stay away from smoking.

Smoking cessation is one area where pharmacists can be most helpful, as they can counsel patients on OTC products, offer their expertise on prescription treatments, provide motivation to quit, and follow up with patients on their smoking habits.

The research project also found that alcohol was the primary cause of divorce among the men in the study, and alcohol abuse tended to precede depression.

Dr. Waldinger closed his TED Talk with a quote from Mark Twain: “There isn't time—so brief is life—for bickerings, apologies, heartburnings, callings to account. There is only time for loving—and but an instant, so to speak, for that.”