We all strive for happiness in life. But what really makes us happy? The first publications of the largest study on happiness to date provide information.
To be truly happy and feel happiness in its deepest form – who wouldn’t want that? Scientists at Harvard University have asked themselves the same question. In a long-term study called the “Harvard Study of Adult Development”, researchers have been accompanying almost 2,000 people from three generations on their way to striving for happiness for more than 80 years. They observed and recorded the life of the subjects, including successes and failures in professional and private life.
The goal: to find out what really positively influences people’s sense of happiness. The study from 1938 represented a milestone in the history of research. Not only because of its now eight decades long investigation period, but above all because of its constructive research focus. For the first time, researchers did not study misfortune and illness, but happiness and well-being.
But what does happiness actually mean? The Duden defines happiness as a “pleasant and joyful state of mind one feels when one comes into possession or enjoyment of something one has desired” and as a “state of inner satisfaction and elation”. It is a subjective state of well-being that can mean something different for each person.
That makes sense, after all, external circumstances such as the socio-economic situation or the state of health also have an effect on our satisfaction. Despite all the subjectivity of the feeling of happiness, the researchers in the interim results of the happiness study, which have now been published for the first time, define a common factor of happiness that influences the well-being and satisfaction of every individual: robust, social relationships and the feeling of connection and belonging.
“If we take all eighty-four years of Harvard Studies and boil them down into a single life principle, it would be this: Good relationships make us healthier and happier,” summarize study leaders Robert Waldinger and Marc Schulz in their book The Good Life. Regardless of external factors such as culture, social class, the current phase of life or the state of health, good relationships are the key to more happiness, health, well-being and ultimately to a long life. Material things, money or success at work, on the other hand, are irrelevant.
A finding that seems banal at first but does not appear to be groundbreaking. Nevertheless, Waldinger and Schulz show in their book how far-reaching the effects of a good social environment really are – and that we usually do not fully exhaust the opportunities to strengthen and maintain our social contacts on a daily basis.
As the authors write, good relationships act as a protective factor for our physical and mental health. The happier a person is in their relationships at the age of 50, the healthier they will be at the age of 80, emphasizes Waldinger. The important thing here is to become active yourself and consciously establish social contacts. As Waldinger explains, this social ability can be learned and trained – like a muscle. “Taking care of your body is important, but nurturing relationships is also a form of self-care,” he says.
As the scientists emphasize, any kind of social relationship is an enrichment for our lives, our health and our general well-being. “Any type of relationship supports our health – friends, relatives, colleagues or acquaintances,” says Waldinger. Even short conversations with strangers, for example on the bus or in the queue at the supermarket checkout, would have a positive effect on our feeling of happiness.
Numerous studies support the findings of the long-term study. It has now been widely proven that loneliness and isolation make people ill in the long term. Nevertheless, it is not the number of social contacts that decides our happiness, but above all our own need for social integration. One or two good relationships that are maintained regularly are sometimes more effective than a large circle of superficial acquaintances.
In any case, it is important to go out yourself and actively seek social interaction. The following points can provide suggestions:
In addition, it is also elementary to work on your personal definition of happiness. According to Waldinger, happiness is often seen as a prize that you can earn or win and then keep for the rest of your life. However, that doesn’t work.
Shawn Anchor, happiness researcher at Harvard University, also points out a common fallacy: “We believe that we will be more successful if we work harder. The harder we work, the more successful we will be. And the more successful we are, the happier we will be.” Ultimately, however, this way of thinking leads to us standing in the way of our own happiness.
“Every time the brain registers a success, the bar is raised afterwards: you got good grades, now you need to get better grades. You’ve met your sales goals, now they’re being increased. When luck is on the other side of success “The brain will never get there. We as a society have pushed happiness beyond our mental horizons because we believe that in order to be happy we have to be successful. However, our brain works the other way around,” explains the scientist in a Ted- talc .
Instead, we should rethink, live more in the here and now and try to find satisfaction in everyday life. How can that succeed? By writing down three new things to be thankful for every day for at least 21 days. Because only after this time does the brain begin
The conclusion: being mindful and grateful, living more in the here and now and concentrating on social contacts – these are the pillars for a long, healthy and happy life.