What a Harvard Study Tells Us About the Only Real Way to Find Happiness

by | Nov 7, 2018 | Life | 11 comments

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“If you were to invest now in your future best self, where would you put your time and your energy?”

That’s the question Robert Wadlinger asks in this awesome TED Talk about happiness. In my quest to THINK more and VEG less, I’ve been trying to replace some of my Netflix time with TED Talk time. And I recently listened to this great talk about what The Good Life really is, and I want to share it with you today. Today is also the first Wednesday in the month, and my readers will know that I like to have a new theme for each month, and then every Wednesday in that month (and perhaps other days, too) I like to build on that theme. We’ve had a number of themes so far:

And this month, for November, I want to talk about happiness and intimacy.

Okay, maybe that’s giving away what Robert Wadlinger is saying in his TED Talk a little bit early, but that’s what I want to concentrate on this month: How can we feel close to one another in a variety of ways?
  • How can we feel physically close?
  • How can we feel emotionally close?
  • And how can we feel spiritually close?
Because all of those things really matter! I really, really loved this TED talk, and I thought it was a great way to start our conversation. You can listen to it here, but if you don’t have time, I’m going to summarize what he said, and add some of my own thoughts as well.
Let me start by explaining the study, because it’s really cool. Here’s the question they started with. Researchers had done lots of studies on happiness, and success, and all these “good” metrics of people’s lives, but the problem with those studies is that we tend to ask people questions after the fact to try to figure out what led to success or happiness. And memories are rather unreliable. You may attribute your success or your happiness to something in your memory, but what if that’s only because you’ve ignored other things that happened to you? What if you’re not really seeing the whole picture? We don’t remember everything, and our insight into ourselves isn’t perfect. So Harvard wanted to do things differently. They asked, “What if we could look at entire lives, as they unfold, through time?” And that’s what they did. Way back in 1938, Harvard chose 724 teenage boys to follow throughout their lives. For 75 years, they’ve tracked the lives of these men, year after year, asking about their home life, health, work, etc. They did all of this without knowing how anything was going to turn out. They chose their study participants from two groups. One group was sophomores at Harvard College (an elite high school). The second group was a group of boys from Boston’s poorest neighbourhoods, living in tenements, many without electricity and running water. Over the years, they watched people go from the bottom of the social scale to the top; and they watched people go from the top go to the bottom. They saw some die early, but many are still participating. And they started interviewing the wives and kids, too! At this point, though, after watching these families for 75 years, they can now make some pretty definitive conclusions. And the definitive lessons that they have learned weren’t about wealth or fame or working harder and harder. On the contrary, the clearest message from the data is this: What is the secret to happiness? A Harvard study tells us it's relationships!

Good relationships keep us happier and healthier.

From this, they identified three key corollaries.

1. Social connectedness is good for us; loneliness kills.

People who are more connected to family, friends and community are happier, healthier, and they live longer. On the other hand, people who are lonely are less happy, their health declines earlier, their brain functioning declines sooner, and they live shorter lives. And what’s really sad is that at any given time, 1/5 Americans report that they are lonely.

2. The quality of your relationships matters. High conflict is bad for your health.

Social connection, though, is not only about being in a committed relationship or about being invited to lots of parties; it’s the quality of relationship that matters. In fact, high conflict marriages without affection are worse for our health than getting divorced. But living in the midst of good, warm relationships is protective. (the lesson here to me is not that we should divorce, but that we should learn how to resolve conflict and build goodwill!) When the study participants started aging, and many started dying, they decided to go back to the data from when the men were 50, and ask, “what’s the biggest predictor of longevity?”

At age 50, it wasn’t their cholesterol levels that predicted whether they would grow old. It was how satisfied they were in their relationships.

The people who were the most satisfied in their relationships were the healthiest at age 80. And good relationships were a buffer to bad health, too! In their 80s, the men and women who had more physical pain but were in good relationships—days with a lot of physical pain didn’t affect their happiness levels as much. But if they were in bad relationships, physical pain changed their happiness levels.

3. Good relationships protect our brains as well as our bodies.

If you are in a securely attached relationship in your 80s, your memories stay sharper, longer. However, people in relationships where they can’t count on the other, memories decline earlier. Here’s the cool thing, though: Relationships don’t have to be smooth all the time. Older couples may bicker about where someone left the remote control or who forgot to mail something. But if they felt they could count on each other, those arguments didn’t take a toll.

This wisdom is as old as the hills. So why don’t we believe it?

This is exactly what the Bible tells us, too. In fact, when Jesus was asked to sum up the message of the Bible, he really did it with one man word: “Love”. He said:

Luke 10:27

‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’
We’re told that everything in the world will one day pass away–except three things:

1 Corinthians 13:8, 13

Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away….And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.
So should we be surprised that love matters most? Of course not. And yet, even though we all may know it, we tend to ignore it, because we want quick fixes. The problem with relying on relationships for happiness is that relationships take work. Lifelong work. The question that comes from this study, then, is an important one. And to paraphrase Robert Wadlinger’s opening question, it comes down to this:

If it is love and relationships that matter most, then where are you investing your time and energy now?

We know that the people who fared the best were people who leaned into relationships with family, friends, community. We know that God is a Triune God who is relational Himself, and He created us to be relational. We know that it is love that matters–love for God and for each other. When we’re in relationship with God and with others, we will feel more at peace, more joy, more fulfillment. And so my question for you this month is this: Will you decide to lean into relationship, and build the love that you need and that those around you need? I’ve written before that I don’t think it’s right for people to have other priorities over relationships. I’m a little suspect if people say, “I have to finish university and get a job before I’ll even think about a relationship.” (I mentioned that in our video this week about long distance dating, too.) I have a really hard time with people who choose to be workaholics, or who don’t understand that ultimately, our family has to come before career, and you can’t afford to live separate lives. Keith and I have been watching Parks and Recreation for the last few weeks, and I’ve just been so FRUSTRATED at Leslie and Ben who give up their relationship for the sake of a job. I hate it when people do that! (don’t worry; I already googled what happens to them later, so you don’t have to reassure me). What I found so funny, and perhaps affirming, in listening to this Talk is that all of the “to dos” that he had at the end of his talk were all things that I have spoken about repeatedly on this blog. And so I’d like to leave you with some of those suggestions in other blog posts. If love matters, why not pick one of these things to try to pursue this week?
  • Replacing screen time with people time
  • Livening up a stale relationship by doing something new
  • Taking long walks
  • Prioritizing date nights

Let’s put this all into practice! Follow the rest of our series on intimacy here:

And remember–my book 9 Thoughts That Can Change Your Marriage really emphasizes all of these things, and more, too! We are designed for intimacy, at all levels. This month, let’s talk about how we can get there, because as Harvard found (and as we all instinctively know), it matters! What do you think? Do you find that people are prioritizing things above relationships? How can we change the cultural conversation around this? Let’s talk in the comments!
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Sheila Wray Gregoire

Author at Bare Marriage

Sheila is determined to help Christians find biblical, healthy, evidence-based help for their marriages. And in doing so, she's turning the evangelical world on its head, challenging many of the toxic teachings, especially in her newest book The Great Sex Rescue. She’s an award-winning author of 8 books and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila works with her husband Keith and daughter Rebecca to create podcasts and courses to help couples find true intimacy. Plus she knits. All the time. ENTJ, straight 8

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  1. Ashley

    Stuff like this makes me think. I really need to do the hard work to get to the place where I can love and trust again.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Oh, Ashley, I hope you can! Just lean into God, and don’t become bitter. He will use what you have learned from your ex-husband to help you in the future, too.

      • Ashley

        Yes, I believe He will. Right now I’m really trying to learn to be a better judge of character. I’ve read some good material. And of course I’m trying to go through all the stages of healing, and not stuff anything.

  2. lydia purple

    I, too, have been watching ted talks a lot lately…
    it‘s really amazing how much connection and intimacy matter. We all want to be understood, known and accepted. But our greatest fear is to be known and rejected.

  3. Amanda Yanetsko

    Sheila, I love your blog! It has helped me immensely. I love your Christian views on marriage and intimacy. As a fellow Christian woman, I just want to gently, respectfully ask that you might mention that God is really the only way to true happiness? These tips are great. But a relationship with Him is where we find true joy and following His example in loving and serving others in our life will bring true joy and peace. I have never commented but I just felt strongly about this one. I hope you don’t feel attacked by me – I mean this with all sincerity and friendship! Thanks for all you do!

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Hi Amanda! Great thoughts. I thought I had said that in the article, but maybe it wasn’t clear enough. I certainly believe that we need God in our lives to have real peace!
      Here’s the thing, though, and this may sound controversial. I don’t actually think we need God to be happy. I know a lot of happy people who aren’t Christian, and when Christians say, “you can’t be happy without God”, I think that can actually work against the gospel, because many people ARE happy. And those happy people are likely happy because they’re in great relationships!
      What Jesus brings us isn’t happiness per se. What Jesus brings us is meaning and purpose and a living, breathing relationship with Him. Many people who are Christians aren’t per se happy, but they are able to find peace and meaning in their lives, and that’s a bigger thing. So you’re right–I totally do need to talk about Jesus more in this one, and we will be in the series that’s coming up–about intimacy at all levels, including spiritual intimacy with our spouses and with God. But let’s just be careful that we don’t make the mistake of thinking that the only way to be happy is with Jesus, because that doesn’t really resonate with people. I don’t think people are looking for happiness. Happiness isn’t that far-fetched. I think what people are looking for is something deeper–meaning, purpose, etc. And that can only be found when there’s a Creator, and when life isn’t meaningless or random. Does that make sense?

      • Lisa

        Saying they happiness is only found with God isn’t true.
        I’ve also had several people say to me that only true Christians can have a good marriage with selfless love.
        But I know people who are happy and I know people who’ve been very happily married for a long time who are not Christian.
        And I know some unhappy Christians.
        Sometimes I wonder if the Christians who say these platitudes spend their lives in a social bubble where all their close relationships are with other Christians.

  4. Needconnection

    I really look forward to this series. Having young kids, my wife studying in another city and me working makes it hard to connect. Also that we have few interest in common aside from the the kids. We never have date nights which makes it harder. These last months my libido has dropped so much and that is killing me too. It’s no wonder that the most divorces and separations happen during this time according to a study in my country. I will never leave my wife. I want to have a deeper connection with her in all areas and hopefully this series will help.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Oh, I hope it will! And I’m glad you’re here!

  5. E

    Trying to find and forge deeper connections is something I am working on. But it feels so so hard. Opening myself up to be truly known also means opening myself up to be badly hurt. Bad past relationships, including parental rejection means that I am much more sensitive to this than some other people I know. So I try, but it feels like one step forward, three steps back. I feel as though a lot of this would be fixed if I felt like I was truly loved and accepted by God, because with Him on my side, how can I fail? The love of God should be enough for me, so I can feel confident enough to show my truths to everyone else, and not worry about them rejecting me. But, I am struggling to feel Gods love. I am second guessing what I believe, whether there really IS a God who loves me, whether Jesus really loves me, whether everything really happened the way the Bible says (or if the stories have been doctored by people for selfish reasons and for control). When I first became a Christ follower, I had never felt so loved…I finally had a Father who knew me and loved me! My prayers felt like I was a girl curled up on her Fathers lap, full of trust. But now I am struggling to feel that way again, my prayers feel weak and unbelieving. It feels like I am not really talking to anyone other than myself. I am back to feeling not good enough, at anything, for anyone.
    I am looking forward to reading through this series.

    • Madeline

      E, I feel like I could have written several parts of your comment myself!
      I grew up in a Christian home and genuinely felt like I had a relationship with God and like I had religious experiences of my own. But I had a lot of unresolved pain from my childhood. I was very closed off to people as a result. I felt like if I could avoid people unless they really, truly proved themselves to me, I could also avoid the pain of disappointment. I also had some tough experiences with churches and with Christians. I still don’t understand how people can use Jesus’ name to justify such heartless behavior. These people quote scripture and talk about Jesus and their relationship with him and simultaneously make a mockery of everything I believe.
      I began to wonder if my spiritual experiences were what I thought they were…what if I was filtering my experience through my Christian upbringing? What if there is a spiritual force in the universe, but not the one that I had been raised to believe? It didn’t help that I had seen other people ask these types of questions before, and the community I grew up in, while they are well-meaning and kind people, don’t wrestle with these questions and so don’t know how to talk to people who do. So I felt very alone in my searching.
      I realized that I had to be open to my questions. I knew they would haunt me forever if I just shoved them down. The truth returned to me…slowly. Not all at once. As cheesy as it sounds, I had to experience God in my own way.
      So my encouragement to you (not that you asked for it, but maybe it will help), is to keep praying. Don’t carry any shame for your questioning. Ask God to speak to you in a way that YOU can understand. And be open to however God chooses to speak to you.


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