If you ask people what's the secret to living a happy life, many will tell you that money is definitely a big part of the equation. But intrigued with discovering the secrets to a meaningful and happy life, a group of Harvard researchers launched a study in 1938, then followed 268 male Harvard undergraduates for 75 years. Many of the participants are now in their 90s.
The unique Harvard Grant Study collected data on the men's lives through surveys and interviews, looking at all aspects, including relationships, politics and religion, coping strategies and alcohol use. The findings may surprise you.
Perhaps one of the biggest revelations was that love really does matter when it comes to living a fulfilled life. In his book about the study, "Triumphs of Experience," Harvard psychiatrist George Vaillant, who directed the study from 1972 to 2004, states: "There are two pillars of happiness, one is love, the other is finding a way of coping with life that does not push love away."
According to Vaillant, the study's most important finding is that the only things that matter in life are relationships. A man could have a successful career, money and good physical health, but without supportive, loving relationships, he would be unhappy. The greatest human skill is the ability to take in love.
Interestingly, Vaillant addresses the fact that so many of the things people thought mattered when it comes to happiness don't. For example, many believe money and social class are vital to success. Vaillant says those two things are at the bottom of the list.
Even one's earliest relationships are important to long-term happiness, especially the mother-child relationship. Men who had a warm childhood relationship with their mothers were less likely to develop dementia later in life and more likely to have professional success.
Avoiding smoking and not abusing alcohol were by far the most important things to increase longevity. The study found that alcohol abuse was the greatest disruptor of health and happiness for the study's subjects. Alcoholism was the leading cause of divorce among the 268 men and their wives. Vaillant also found a strong correlation between alcohol abuse, neurosis and depression. Interestingly, mental illness followed the alcohol abuse rather than preceding it.
Another interesting finding: More money, power and intelligence do not mean more happiness. Vaillant found that men with IQs between 110 and 115 were no less or more happy than men with IQs higher than 150. Furthermore, the only thing that really matters when it comes to achievement is contentment at work. Having a meaningful connection to the work one does is more important than achieving traditional success.
Vaillant also found that success early on in life did not necessarily mean ultimate success later and, conversely, failure early in life did not necessarily mean ultimate failure. In fact, some who looked as though they would not end up doing well actually became successful. Vaillant shares that the journey from immaturity to maturity is a sort of movement from narcissism to connection, and a big part of this shift has to do with the way challenges are handled.
In the end, it all comes back to relationships, connection and love. Are you on a pathway to happiness and a meaningful life or a dead end road?
Julie Baumgardner is president and CEO of First Things First. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.