Seven lessons from the world’s longest-running study on happiness

Starting in the 1930s, researchers tracked the mood of 700 people throughout their lives. Melissa Twigg reports



Daily Telegraph


Ask any group of people what they want out of life – or what they want for their children’s futures – and most will reply, “Happiness”. We are a complicated species that desperately wants contentment, while being remarkably bad at knowing how to get it. Just look around us: adverts promise that a happy life can be bought with the perfect holiday, the perfect wedding or the perfect house, while our culture suggests that fulfilment comes from finding professional success while building the ideal 2.4 family. Enter The Good Life, a book that uses hard science to debunk much of that. In it, Harvard professors Robert Waldinger and Marc Schulz lay out the findings of the world’s longest happiness study, which began in 1938 when researchers from their university set out to learn what makes a person thrive. A human life will inevitably contain periods of pain and trauma, but they found that these moments can be weathered if we have good relationships. Because ultimately, it is the strength of our bonds – not whether we are married or single; high flying or just getting by – that determines everything. This is as true now as it was nearly a century ago. In the 1930s, the study recruited 724 participants – a mix of male Harvard students and low-income boys in Boston – who they tracked as they built careers, got married, and eventually retired. Their wives and children joined the study, and every five years researchers took health records from the participants, and every two years, they asked a set of detailed questions; later, they took DNA samples and performed scans. Twenty-five of the participants even donated their brains to the study after their deaths. “We learnt that people believe happiness is something they can achieve – if they buy that house or get a promotion or lose enough weight, then happiness will follow,” says Waldinger. “We act as if it is a destination we will get to if we tick the right boxes, but the data very clearly shows that this is simply not true. And that’s a good thing, ‘Data shows that contentment is no longer something out of reach, but achievable for all of us’ as contentment is no longer something out of reach, but eminently achievable for all of us.” One of the questions Waldinger gets asked the most is, “Is it too late for me?” Thanks to this study, he has an answer. “Of course your genes and your experiences will shape the way you live and see the world, but nothing in your life prevents you from connecting with others and thriving at any age. You can be lonely in a crowd and lonely in a marriage, but you can also find real fulfilment by fostering just one or two very warm relationships in your community.” And if you do, health may follow: the book explains that people with the strongest bonds in their 50s were the healthiest in their 80s, with lower rates of heart disease and depression. Worried your relationships aren’t as good as they could be? Here are some simple ways to get started.