Tag Archives: Other People

The Good Life: 75 years of research in five simple words

One of the eternal quests of men is to discover the good life. The key to happiness, one would suppose, cannot be simple. What would the conclusions be of a 75-year study of the Good Life be? They must at the minmum fill a small library.

In what is now one of my favourite TED talks, Robert Waldinger summarises the takeaways in twelve minutes I need to eat my breakfast.

75 years of study

Waldinger is the director of the so-called Grant Study. In the longitudinal study, started 75 years ago, Harvard students starting university in the years 1939-1944 have been studied throughout their life. Every two years, research staff came to see them, asking them about health and illness, happiness and misery, career and love. Based on thousands of data points, the researchers got an in-depth understanding of how the health of these 268 men developed over life. The study included people running for senator (and one US President – guess and check at the end of the post if you were right!), doctors and lawyers, but also people who fell down hard from the top. And to ensure the findings wouldn’t be biased on different realities of the Harvard elite, the study early in its history was complemented by a survey of a sample of 456 inner city Boston boys.

Social relations for happiness and health

How did Waldinger summarise all these years of data in his twelve minutes? Simple: he pointed out how social relations are the key to our happiness and our health:

  • Social connections are good for us – and loneliness kills. Social relations to friends, family and community are correlated with longer lives. And loneliness is toxic: it’s associated with earlier decline in health.
  • Quality is king. Living in conflict is bad for health: high-conflict marriages without affection may even be worse than getting divorced. That doesn’t mean that everything goes smoothly: the typical bickering old-age couple isn’t too problematic, as long as both partners know they can rely on each other in case of need.
  • Good relations protect our brain. If you want to predict the health of someone’s brain at age 80, data of their relationship satisfaction age 50 provide a good indication.

Is it really that simple?

If you’re a sceptic, I know what you’ll say reading this. First: how can we make judgements based on relatively small samples, of only 268 and 456 studies. Second: is there proof that this correlation means causation. If we study 10,000 instead of just over 700 people, are the effects the same? Thirdly: is the key to happiness this simple and obvious? Can it be reduced to, just, being a good person to your wife or husband?

The honest answer is: I don’t know. I haven’t conducted the research myself. I haven’t analysed the 10,000s of data points to come to these conclusions. The way I see it is that these conclusions, maybe more than anything, are good reminders to focus on the big picture from time to time as we frantically go from place to place and task to task, busy living our lives.

In two articles portraying the study in the Atlantic in 2009 and 2013, Waldinger’s predecessor as study lead George Vaillant presents a couple of other lessons. And again, these are quite obvious, or at least, they don’t come as big surprises:

  •  Alcoholism is destructive, and the number one cause of divorce.
  • From a certain point, a higher IQ doesn’t affect incomes anymore
  • A good relationship with your mother matters your entire life
  • And: aging liberals have better sex lives (ok, maybe that one was actually less obvious!)

Tools to unravel the mystery of happiness

In our attempts to unravel the mystery of happiness, we use all kind of different tools, from spiritual retreats to decade-long surveys. Ultimately, even though happiness means different things for different people, probably the conclusion of most of these quite similar. In the words of Vaillant, when summarising his decades as leader of the study:

“Happiness is love. Full stop”


And who was the later US President who participated in the study? John F. Kennedy.

People make life interesting

During my time in high school, I was not the most social person in class. I didn’t really fit in with the two camps at my school.

At the one side, you had the popular kids. They played (field) hockey, wore shirts with their collars, smoke and drank, and dated each other.

On the other side, you had the alternative kids. They played in bands, dyed their hair yellow or green, smoke and drank, and dated each other.

I took my own course, alone, or interacting with the other pupils who where a bit in between the camps. I kept in my comfort zone, and if it wasn’t necessary, didn’t speak to people I didn’t know.

An encounter with F.

But that was high school. Let me tell you about an encounter I recently had.

I was sitting at a bar with some friends as a girl approached us and asked whether she could join us. She had had a bad day. At the bar, to a bunch of strangers she just met – us – F. told the story of her life.

F. had a bruise in her face. She had been hit by her boyfriend. They had spent a long time together, but recently he had turned violent. F. knew she had to leave him. At the same time, she wasn’t sure whether she was a ready to end it. There was a lot that connected her to him; the fight had broken her spirit but not her heart. A punch in the face is painful, but love can hurt even more.

On the outside, she had a good life. She only worked a bit for fun and personal interest. Otherwise, she was taken care off . Her lifestyle was rich, with frequent trips throughout Europe and money available for shopping sprees anytime she desired. In her early thirties, F. still enjoyed her life, going to crazy parties and doing whatever she wanted. Her friends looked up to her, admired her. And she couldn’t take it any longer. F.’s life, I think, had become artificial. It had to be changed.

The value of ephemeral encounters

It was a tense conversation, and an important encounter for her as well as for me. As I wrote above, in my days of high school I wasn’t very open to people. Now, I realised that I was able to engage in a deep conversation about all important parts of life with a person I met some minutes before. I gave her some advice, and I hope it helped her a bit. But it also helped me to reflect about myself and about human interaction.

Here in Brussels I regularly meet people only for a short time, and still have extremely interesting conversations. Initially, I used to think that these meetings are useless. I used to think that if a good level of contact is achieved, a seed of friendship should be made flourish. But I am starting to change my mind about this. Friendship is a great thing, but there is also a beauty and a value in ephemeral encounters. One nice chat for an evening, and than life goes on, each with their own friends, dreams and hopes.

Into The Wild

There are two ways I could finish this story. One is by referring to a Dutch poem, Aan Rika by Piet Paaltjens from the 19th century. It’s about a guy who sees a girl for a split second, when the train she’s riding is passing his. He gets dragged away by the moment immediately, and fantasises about both of them being destroyed by the colliding trains. But this is not a story of love or destruction.

The appropriate end to this story is a different one: the movie Into the Wild. The hero of the film, Alexander Supertramp, travels to Alaska alone to live a life of isolation, close to the nature he loves so much. The trip has moments of reflection, beauty and sincere happiness, I think. However, at the end of the film, Alexander realises an important lesson: happiness is only real when shared with others.

Is there anybody here?

Regardless how happy you are with yourself and your own life, it’s other people who make life truly worthwhile. Whoever they are.

Into the Wild

How will you buy your happiness

Money can’t buy happiness, or so goes the common wisdom.

money can't buy happiness

Some say that despite this, it is more comfortable crying in a Porsche than on a bicycle. Others say that even if money can’t buy you happiness, it can buy a jet ski, which is pretty close.

money happiness jetski

TEDx speaker Michael Norton offers his own take on the matter. His research illustrates that if you think that money can’t buy happiness, you’re just not spending it right.

Norton is an associate professor in Business Administration at Harvard University and the co-author of ‘Happy Money: The Science of Smarter Spending.’ Of their five principles on happy money, I would like to focus on two: buying experiences and investing in others.

Buying experiences
One of the best ways to get the most bang for your happiness buck is to spend money on experiences. It’s not material goods, but rather, the special moments in our lives that we cherish. No matter what we buy, we adapt to material goods quickly. A new pair of shoes or amazing coffee machine will only retain its magic for a short period of time. Memories of special moments spent with fun people, however, don’t fade. Therefore, Norton’s advice is to go see a friend that you haven’t seen for a long time when the opportunity arises, and accept a monetary loss to book that great trip to Latin America. The fulfillment you’ll get will be a lot higher than for any luxury good purchase.

Spending money on others
A second way to ‘invest’ money in happiness is to spend it on others. In Norton’s talk, he explains the experiment that lead to this conclusion. And to test it, they gave money away. The setup of the experiment was simple: they gave Canadian students small amounts of money, around $5 or $20. Half were instructed to use it to buy something for themselves; the other half were asked to get a little gift for someone else. At the end of the day, the students answered a short survey about their happiness.

The conclusions were clear: for the students who bought something for themselves – say, a coffee or makeup – there were no major differences in happiness. But those who had bought something for others reported higher happiness levels. Further studies confirmed that the effect does not apply only to this particular demographic (Canadian students), but that the patterns were strikingly similar in Uganda and nearly everywhere else.

How will you buy your happiness?

An earlier version of this post was published on the blog of TEDxAmsterdam, as part of my series ‘TED & Happiness’, exploring some of the fifty plus talks related to happiness in TED’s library. Earlier posts covered flow (Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi) and ‘happiness advantage‘ (Shawn Achor).

Thanks to Tori Egherman for editing and for the illustration below.