The Key To Happiness, According To A Decades-Long Study丨Fortune

新英文杂志 2023-01-25 18:40
Researchers have followed over 700 people since 1938 to find the keys to happiness. Here’s what they discovered

If someone asked you which of the following choices would make for the most pleasant train ride possible which would you choose—spending your commute keeping to yourself or striking up a conversation with one of the unpredictable strangers in the seat next to you? 

Many of us would choose to sit back with our headphones in because the thought of having to converse with someone we don’t know is scary. We assume the worst, Dr. Robert Waldinger, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School at Massachusetts General Hospital and co-author of the new book The Good Life, tells Fortune. 

His book uses this question to illustrate how we expect social interactions to be negative based on the uncertainty that comes with connection. However, in a study from the University of Chicago, people who decided to strike up that conversation rated their commute as more pleasant than normal, ultimately surprising themselves, Waldinger and his co-author Marc Schulz write. 

“We seem particularly bad at forecasting the benefits of relationships,” the co-authors write. “A big part of this is the obvious fact that relationships can be messy and unpredictable. This messiness is some of what prompts many of us to prefer being alone.” 

In The Good Life, Waldinger and Schulz distill what makes people find happiness from a study beginning in 1938 following the lives of 724 Harvard students and low-income boys from Boston in the world’s longest scientific study of happiness to date, according to the researchers. The ongoing study, which has expanded to include the spouses and children of the original participants, consists of over 2,000 people. 

The researchers gathered participants’ health records every five years, conducted DNA tests along the way, and received questionnaires about their lives and well-being every two years. Roughly every 15 years, the researchers met the participants in-person for an interview. The researchers followed the participants’ lives in hopes of finding the key to happiness and found that it wasn’t, in fact, good health.

One thing instead became irrefutable: strong relationships most accurately predicted people’s happiness throughout their lives. They are “intrinsic to everything we do and everything we are,” the authors write.  

Now, that doesn’t mean you must strike up a conversation on a busy train car to have a happy life. Waldinger says he wants to instead show how easily, and subconsciously, we bypass the chance to connect when swept up by the hustle of life. 

When the participants in the happiness study were asked how they overcame adversity—illnesses, war memories, and losses—their connections always remained a cornerstone of hope in their lives, whether they recalled the person who lent them money when they didn’t have anywhere to turn or their fellow soldier who kept them afloat when they fought (many of the participants served in war). As they aged, the participants who shared regrets mainly bemoaned how little time they spent with family and friends and how much they cared about the seemingly trivial—success and money. 

“It’s not that accomplishment isn’t important and satisfying. It is,” Waldinger says. “But when we sacrifice our [relationships], that’s when we end up regretting it, and living a life that isn’t as good as we might have.” 

If you feel uneasy about the quality of your connections, you’re in luck because the researchers say it’s never too late to improve your relationships, whether it be a new friend or someone we reconnect with from our past. 

Work on your ‘social fitness’ 
Our social lives demand exercise. 

“Social fitness” is the ability to take stock of your relationships and work on them through time, Waldinger says. Which ones energize you? Who do you appreciate and how can you incorporate them into your life in new ways? Do you want to make new connections? Even the people we consider close friends can begin to slide down the priority list as we age. 

“We grow. We change. Our lives change,” Waldinger says. “But some of it is that we can be intentional, saying, ‘this person I want to keep in my life.’ That’s the intentional part that I want to point to.” 

The best way to improve your “social fitness” is to schedule time to build relationships into your week, as you would a session at the gym or a work meeting. Waldinger and Schulz aren’t only co-authors but friends, and they talk every Friday at noon. 

“We talk about our work and we talk about writing this book, but we talk about our kids and we talk about things that are bothering us in our personal lives. We talk about everything,” he says. “That phone call is automatic, and we actually have to cancel it if there’s a reason. It’s a huge factor in how we’ve been able to stay close.”

It’s never too late to start finding that time to carve in a quick weekly phone call with someone you miss and appreciate. Waldinger also encourages making a friend at work, by asking someone to hang out and getting to know them over a shared interest or by solving a professional issue together. 

For people who want to make new connections, Waldinger suggests putting yourself into more positions where that may be possible. It can be trickier if you’re working from home, moving to a new city, or navigating a dynamic where you don’t have a close point of contact, but putting ourselves out there is still in our control, Waldinger says. Join a local book club or intramural team, call a friend even for a short amount of time weekly or monthly, or plan your next visit to someone who lives far from you. 


January 14, 2023 | 965 words