Etincelle Santé

The key to happiness

In 1938, a team of Harvard researchers began the longest study ever carried out (85 years!) on factors encouraging health and happiness. By following university students and young people from a particularly disadvantaged area of Boston, then their wives, children and grandchildren, they gradually discovered the most important factor: quality, warm, deep and loving relationships.

Deep, loving relationships

At first, researchers thought that professional success, social environment and biological factors might explain a long, happy and healthy life. But over the last thirty years or so, they have come to understand that warm human relations are the most important factor. And it doesn’t matter what kind of relationships you have: whether they’re romantic, friendly, familial, professional or simply caring interactions with people you meet on a daily basis, or even strangers.

People with warm relationships tend to live longer, healthier and happier lives.

As the study directors put it

“Loneliness kills. It’s as powerful as smoking or alcoholism”. – Robert Waldinger

“When the study began, no one was interested in empathy or attachment. But the key to healthy aging is relationships, relationships, relationships.” – George Vaillant

“The feeling of loneliness coupled with stress is part of what degrades health. That’s why researchers consider loneliness to be as dangerous as smoking half a pack of cigarettes a day or being obese.” – Robert Waldinger

Childhood and relationships

In childhood, a warm relationship with one’s mother is linked to higher wages (on average), greater efficiency at work and a reduced risk of dementia. A warm relationship with one’s father is linked with reduced anxiety, an excellent ability to enjoy vacations and high life satisfaction when assessed at age 75. Don’t worry if your family situation was (as in many cases) chaotic: nothing is set in stone, and it’s always possible to reverse unfavorable factors by creating new, quality relationships.

Social skills

Any strategy is a good one for fostering social ties. The simple act of keeping in touch with loved ones, reconnecting with old friends
or lost family members is favorable. You can organize or take part in activities together, and if you feel like it
adventurous, try something new. A shared discovery strengthens the bond and intimacy, if only through laughter at having tried something particularly zany.

Also try to strike up conversations with strangers, whether at the market or on the bus. The study participants who tried the experiment were all enriched by it! I’m particularly fond of this tool, which allows me to make unusual and enriching encounters.

Lastly, communication tools and a knowledge (however rudimentary) of human psychology will enhance the depth and quality of the links created and maintained.

Other factors

Taking care of your health and maintaining optimal health in your own context can avoid (or limit) many worries. Here again, good relationships are conducive to good health : people who are fulfilled in their relationships at 50 are in better health at 80. In addition, happy marriages at age 80 have a protective effect on mental health and pain response In the case of unhappy marriages, the emotional pain weighs on the physical pain, which increases as the mood declines.

Professional success, intelligence quotient(IQ),education and culture can indeed contribute to happiness, but they are all less important than social relationships. The study shows that the quality of relationships even favors financial success, more so than IQ or other factors you might think essential.

Happiness is fickle

Don’t forget, in this age of social media where everything goes through a glamour filter, that happiness is fickle, like any other state of being. Life is made up of ups and downs, and social ties foster resilience in difficult situations. Simply having someone to talk to after a long, tiring day lowers the body’s response to stress (fight, flight or tetany), whereas people who have no one to talk to tend to be in this state of stress response all the time.

It’s never too late

Maintaining (or discovering) an openness to the world and being ready to evolve one’s point of view allows us to gain happiness points at any moment in life. People with dramatic childhoods have been able to access happiness thanks to their willpower, their openness and their social connections.


For those who like videos

TED talks by Robert Waldinger (subtitles available)

Further information

Books by Georges E. Vaillant (who conducted the study from 1972 to 2004)

Triumphs of experience (2012)

Adaptation to life (2012)

Aging well : Surprising guideposts to a happier life from the landmark study of adult development (2008)