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The Truth Behind Harvard's Happiness Study and Relationships

With more and more people touting the benefits of self-care, they often forget one key aspect: relationships.  While looking inward and doing more to improve your mental/physical wellbeing is important, an influential Harvard study shows that your interpersonal connections have a lot to do with this, as well.  The new twist on an old theme, “Your vibe attracts your tribe” might actually be more accurate in reverse!  Nevertheless, after 80 years, the Harvard Study of Adult Development has shown that happiness and healthy relationships truly go hand-in-hand.



As one of the longest known studies on adults, this project began in 1938 during the midst of the Great Depression.  Naturally, they looked at their own students to start.  A collection of Harvard sophomores was selected for this research, which followed them from graduation to WWII and beyond (for most).  However, they also chose a group from the opposite end of the socioeconomic pool within Boston at that time.  At the outset, researchers were “particularly interested in what psychosocial variables and biological processes from earlier in life predict health and well-being in late life (80’s and 90’s), what aspects of childhood and adult experience predict the quality of intimate relationships in late life, and how late life marriage is linked with health and well-being.”  After checking in with each of the original 724 participants on an annual basis, with full access to detailed questionnaires, medical records, home interviews, brain scans, and more, they found one common thread emerge over the years.  It would appear that good relationships, more than anything else, were better predictors of lifelong health and happiness.



Well, the facts don’t lie.  After 80 years and tens of thousands of pages of research, certain trends emerged, regardless of socioeconomic status.  One of which showed that loneliness is a serious threat to your mental health. Often, it’s those strong social connections that bolster you during the inevitable low points of your life. Without anyone to share your struggles with, you’re more likely to internalize your stress, creating a toxic environment that leads to less happiness, poorer health and brain functioning, as well as shorter life spans.


However, you can’t simulate these relationships with just anyone.  The study also showed that the old cliché of “quality over quantity” applied.  Having a few close, healthy relationships allow you to reap the benefits—whether they’re friendships, family ties, or marriages.  Conversely, one-sided or high-conflict arrangements have the opposite effect.  Later on in the study, they found that married couples going through medical problems would report their symptoms being alleviated or exacerbated by their partners depending on the nature of their relationship.


The same can be said when it comes to neurological functions. Maintaining strong connections as you age may actually improve your memory.  Not only does it provide for consistent stimulation, but also it can translate to sharpen mental acuity and enhanced recall.  It’s important to note, once again, that these findings were only present within good relationships.  Those who felt they had a support system in place were likely to experience these benefits.  If, however, they were in a relationship where their partner was unreliable, researchers actually found an early decline in memory.  So, it’s important to invest your time in the right relationships.



Currently, Harvard’s in the process extending this famous study to the next generation!  In 2015, they began contacting potential participants, since out of the original 724 men, they estimate there are more than 2,000 descendants.  With this second generation of research, they’ll explore findings across more diversity, greater geography, and examine the effects of the many technological advancements in recent years.  You can learn more about their project here!


While we wait for these results, you can begin to implement what we’ve learned in your own life. Invest in healthy relationships and surround yourself with good people as if your health and happiness depended on it. Especially during National Suicide Prevention Week, these simple steps toward self-care can make a big impact on your life—along with those of the people you love.  If you’re struggling to put these practices in place, or overcome depression and/or suicidal thoughts, please don’t hesitate to ask for help. You have all the resources at Focal Points Therapy on your side, as well as 24/7 assistance from the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255.

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