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Ted Talk Happiness Harvard Research Paper

Happiness is one of the most important things in life, yet it's also one of the hardest to study.

Psychiatrist Robert Waldinger is the director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, one of the longest and most complete studies of adult life ever conducted. Waldinger described some of the secrets to happiness revealed by the study in a recent TED talk.

The study followed two cohorts of white men for 75 years, starting in 1938:

  • 268 Harvard sophomores as part of the "Grant Study" led by Harvard psychiatrist George Vaillant
  • 456 12- to 16-year-old boys who grew up in inner-city Boston as part of the "Glueck Study" led by Harvard Law School professor Sheldon Glueck

The researchers surveyed the men about their lives (including the quality of their marriages, job satisfaction, and social activities) every two years and monitored their physical health (including chest X-rays, blood tests, urine tests, and echocardiograms) every five years.

They came away with one major finding: Good relationships keep us happier and healthier.

In his TED Talk, Waldinger pointed out three key lessons about happiness:

1. Close relationships

The men in both groups of the Harvard study who reported being closer to their family, friends, or community tended to be happier and healthier than their less social counterparts. They also tended to live longer. By comparison, people who said they were lonelier reported feeling less happy. They also had worse physical and mental health, as defined above.

A 2014 review of dozens of studies published in the journal Social and Personality Psychology Compass suggests that loneliness can get in the way of mental functioning, sleep, and well-being, which in turn increases the risk of illness and death.

2. Quality (not quanity) of relationships

It's not just being in a relationship that matters. Married couples who said they argued constantly and had low affection for one another (which study authors defined as "high-conflict marriages") were actually less happy than people who weren't married at all, the Harvard study found.

However, the effect of relationship quality seems to depend somewhat on age. A 2015 study published in the journal Psychology and Aging that followed people for 30 years found that the number of relationships people had was, in fact, more important for people in their 20s, but the quality of relationships had a bigger effect on social and psychological well being when people were in their 30s.

3. Stable, supportive marriages

Being socially connected to others isn't just good for our physical health. It also helps stave off mental decline. People who were married without having divorced, separating, or having "serious problems" until age 50 performed better on memory tests later in life than those who weren't, the Harvard study found.

And other research backs this up. A 2013 study in the journal PLOS ONE found that marriage, among other factors, was linked to a lower risk of mild cognitive impairment and dementia.

All of this suggests that strong relationships are critical to our health.

Society places a lot of emphasis on wealth and "leaning in" to our work, Waldinger said. "But over and over, over these 75 years, our study has shown that the people who fared the best were the people who leaned in to relationships, with family, with friends, with community."

You can watch the full TED talk here.

Absurdly Driven looks at the world of business with a skeptical eye and a firmly rooted tongue in cheek. 


Have you made a lot of money this year? You did?

Are you happy now?

Oh, you are?

But maybe you're not. You're not famous, are you?

Oh, you are?

So you're extremely happy then?

You are? No, you just think you are.

I feel sure of this because I've just allowed a TED Talk to waft over me, one that has reassured me not to try and be rich and famous.

The talk was given by Robert Waldinger, a psychiatrist from the Harvard School of Adult Development.

In these 12 short minutes, he offers the results of 75 years of studying happiness. Yes, life can be summed up in a very short time.

The study began in 1938 and Waldinger is the fourth to lead it. I cannot confirm that the other three became too rich, famous and miserable to carry on.

Waldinger is desperate to stop millennials from making themselves miserable. 80 percent of them apparently say their life goal is to be rich. 50 percent say one of their goals is also to be famous.

Millennials really wish they were Miley-nnials.

724 men were in the study at the start. More than 60 are still alive. (Women were added later along the way, just as women were when it came to voting rights in Switzerland.)

So what is the secret to happiness, the one about which so many books have been written and so many drunken conversations have gone on all night?

"Good relationships keep us happier and healthier," declaims Waldinger.

That's it? Really? The secret to happiness comes down the reading the last 30 years of Cosmopolitan magazine?

Social connections, says Waldinger, are "really good for us." This doesn't mean networking, oh Business Type. This means something real. You are familiar with real, aren't you?

Loneliness isn't merely toxic. It doesn't only lead to earlier illness and death. It rots the brain, too.

It's not enough, though, to be married or surrounded by (Facebook) friends. Your relationships have to be warm and loving.

What? You've never seen one of those? Oh, you live in New York.

If you're in a happy relationship in your 50s, says Waldinger, you're going to be happy in your 80s. You'll likely still be alive as well.

And when you're in your 80s, if you're with someone you still like and can actually rely on, you'll have a better memory.

The idea of being able to rely on someone is extremely powerful.

Waldinger explains that a good relationship isn't a hippy-dippy-we're-all-in-this-together-all-the-people-in-the-world sort of thing.

Instead, it's the deep-seated knowledge that when the fan begins to smell, your partner will be there to help you shovel your way through.

Of course, modern life isn't conducive to trusting anyone. Narcissism is only encouraged by social media. Friendship is often virtual. And, as Waldinger says, we're prone to believing in quick fixes. 

That, after all, is what an instant, electronic capitalist society is built on. Wall Street is the ultimate everyday quick fix. So is Tinder.

But we can never get enough quick fixes, can we? Somehow, we always need more because each quick fix lasts about as long as a YouTube video.

It's curious that relationships matter so much. We parrot the thought without necessarily focusing on what a truly great relationship feels like. 

Is that because we have so many "close" relationships that we know we can ultimately throw away?

Could it be that many people are unhappy simply because they can't find one or more people with whom they actually feel at home?

Perhaps that's why money and fame are so alluring. They give you the feeling that you must be loved -- in both senses of the word "must."

Where would we be without actors and singers not taking drugs, not cheating on their spouses and not getting married four times?

We'd have nothing to read, would we? We'd have no role models.