As humans, our definition of happiness changes as we grow old and evolve. There is more to happiness than just success or fame. Contrary to popular opinion, happiness is multi-faceted and is not something to attain and retain forever. We tend to be happier when we experience desired emotions even if they are unpleasant – like anger or hatred. Happiness indeed is too complex an emotion to be condensed to a smiley emoji.
There have been countless studies to find the cause of happiness. Running for over eighty-years now, a Harvard study on adult development started in 1938 with 724 men – sophomores at Harvard or people from Boston’s most impoverished neighbourhoods – living in tenements, without access to running water. Many went on to serve in the WW2; others became doctors, bricklayers, lawyers, and one of them the President of the United States. Some of them became alcoholics and a few developed schizophrenia. There were people on either end of the spectrum, so to speak.
Their personal and professional lives were meticulously tracked, with detailed questionnaires followed by interviewing them in their living rooms. Their medical records were documented and, occasionally, conversations about their deepest concerns were videotaped. The study touched upon every aspect of their lives.
When gigabytes of these data were studied carefully, it became evident that good relationships keep us happier and healthier. The researchers drew three crucial lessons from this study:
Social connections keep us happy and healthy, and loneliness kills
Prolonged periods of loneliness are often more toxic than regular drinking and smoking. Loneliness led to a decline in one’s health during midlife and shortened their life-span. It adversely affected the functioning of their brain as well. On the contrary, being part of warm relationships was protective.
Depth over breadth
It is the quality of close relationships that matter the most. In hindsight, the academics could predict participants’ health in their 80s using the relationships they shared in midlife; it was, in fact, a better indicator of their health compared to cholesterol levels.
Good relationships protect our brains as well
Secure connections are protective not only for our body but also for our brain. It boosts our creativity and enhances our memory.
In moments of distress, we find strength in our relationships. Research suggests that we are just as happy in warm relationships, even when we experience physical pain, whereas emotional distress amplifies physical pain in conflict-filled connections.
With diminishing value being placed on healthy relationships, it is only fair to reiterate its importance. It could be as simple as replacing some screen-time with people-time or being unafraid to acknowledge our flaws. All that happiness demands is a little bit of effort.
2021 has dawned upon us with fresh beginnings – let us commit to forging strong, close relationships and reviving old ones. There is no secret to happiness, not anymore.