The Atlas

The real life application of happiness research

I have an evolving relationship with social science's quest to figure out what makes people happy. In fact, I used to listen to my former business partner talk about it and have to actively resist the urge to roll my eyes and groan dramatically (and, in all fairness, he knew I was barely containing a scoff, so he mostly just fed me more beer with chips and guac). It always felt so... trivial. I was interested in meaning and impact and a whole host of other things. But "happiness" just felt... trite. And far too trivial to be worth pursuing in its own right.

This has been on my mind a lot recently, particularly after reading Arthur Brooks book, "From Strength to Strength." In it he talked about one of the interviews he'd conducted with a woman who said, "I'd rather be special than happy." That line stopped me cold, because I recall saying (almost verbatim) the exact same thing to my best girlfriend a few years ago.

And yet, as I have continued to internalize much of the research Brooks lays out in his book, I am both annoyed and relieved to discover that my changing perspective on that is actually sort of... normal. My ego still craves being special in a way that leads me to the brink of truly bad decisions on a regular basis ("Yes, I'll volunteer for that!" "Absolutely, I'll be on a plane tomorrow!" Bah!), but the part of me that really believes that my mid-life priority needs to be focusing on how I'm going to feel at the end of my life, realizes that the stupid ass shit that seemed like a good idea when I was 34 just sounds stupid and self-defeating now.

So, when in doubt, I find research from a credible source actually makes me feel better and helps my emotional reaction sift through the white noise and get grounded before I do something stupid. (At least sometimes, anyway.)

For me, one of the best sources for this is the Harvard Study of Adult Development. I am a bit of a junkie when it comes to this team's work. If you aren't familiar with it, you can check out Dr. Rober Waldinger's TED Talk on it to get more background. But the net-net is that, for nearly 80 years, the research team at Harvard has been tracking the lives of a group of men who came from all walks of life, to see how their lives unfolded -- and ultimately, what led to a happy, satisfying life. As it turns out, the answer is actually pretty simple: it's the quality of our relationships.

The key details about the test group:

  • 724 men
  • Since 1938
  • Every two years they check in with them
  • Now they have continued the research with their descendants

The key takeaways about the findings:

  • Good relationships keep us happier and healthier.
  • Social connections are invaluable, and loneliness kills.
  • It's not the quantity, it's the quality of relationships.
  • Strong secure relationships preserve long-term cognitive function.

And for me -- at the telling age of 47 -- the data point that floods my brain at least 3 or 4 times per week: the key to good health at the age of 80 was the quality of and level of satisfaction in their relationship at the age of 50.

Read that again. If you want to be healthy and happy at 80, make sure your relationships are strong and healthy by the time you are 50. (If you're already past 50... yeah, no idea. But I'm a fan of the scramble-and-make-up school of thought, so I say: get on it already!)

For those of us who spent our 30's and 40's focused on work, that's a truly terrifying statistic. And every time I think I miss my free-wheeling, digital nomad days of no obligations or responsibilities, I also think about that stat.

Will it turn out to be true for me? I have no idea. But another think I've come to appreciate after reading Brooks' book is that my experience is not as unique as I had assumed. So maybe I shouldn't be too quick to dismiss the rest, either.

So, I will say something my former business partner has never heard me say: you were right, Elijah, and I was wrong. Mea culpa. Maybe happiness really is worth focusing on after all.

Alora's Signature