“How happy are you, really?” It’s a question you may, in an unguarded moment, be confronted with. During a deep conversation with good friends in the pub, at a mental health seminar at your work or the question appears in large letters on the front cover of your favorite magazine. Chances are that you feel overwhelmed by this personal question and automatically answer “yes”. After all, your company is doing well, you recently bought your dream house and you are more than satisfied with your appearance. Yet the question keeps haunting your mind: “Is it true, am I really happy? And what is it that actually makes me happy?”
The search for happiness is a difficult one and if you’re not careful it can even last your whole life. Happiness seems something intangible and different for everyone. Giving an unequivocal answer to the question of how to become happy therefore seems impossible. Yet American scientists have managed to find the key to happiness and formulate a number of essential factors for a happy life.
During the Harvard Study of Adult Development, which spanned 75 years, 700 men were tested on the basis of their quality of life, social activities and work atmosphere. Every two years they were surveyed and every five years their health was measured. The conclusion? Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. During a TED talk, psychiatrist and head of research Robert Waldinger shared three essential lessons that emerged from the groundbreaking study on happiness:
1. Close relationships
The men in the study who had closer relationships with their friends, family and environment were said to be healthier and happier than their less social counterparts. They also lived longer compared to those who reported being lonely. In addition, previous research has shown that loneliness has a bad impact on a person’s mental functioning, sleep and overall well-being.
2. Quality over quantity
But just being in a relationship doesn’t get you there. Married couples who reported frequent bickering and little affection for each other were found to be less happy than the single participants in the study. However, the effect of the quality of relationships does seem to be age-related. For people between the ages of 20 and 30, the number of relationships does appear to matter, while the quality of relationships has more of an impact on the social and psychological well-being of those over 30.
Waldinger goes a step further and concludes that being socially connected is not only good for our psychological state, but it also helps slow mental decline. People who are married without ever getting divorced, being (temporarily) separated or having “serious problems” are said to perform much better on memory tests after age 50 and are less likely to develop dementia. So strong, stable relationships are essential to our health.