What makes us happy? This study has been analyzing people for 80 years to find out

What makes us happy?  This study has been analyzing people for 80 years to find out

Fortunately or unfortunately, in real life we ​​do not have a science like the psychohistory narrated by Asimov in the saga of The foundation. Nothing allows us to statistically predict the long-term future and thus be able to prevent or correct great evils. But what our science can do is analyze the present and the past to draw conclusions. That, on a scale never seen before in any study of human behavior, is what it takes 80 years developing the Harvard study on adult development.

Also know as Second Generation Study, researchers from the Harvard Medical School have been following the lives of 724 men. Interviewing them, following their moments of happiness, of uncertainty, the birth of their children, and even the death of some of them. The objective: know what makes us happy.

Currently headed by psychiatrist Robert J. Waldinger (born 1951), the study began before him when in 1938, during the Great Depression and shortly before the outbreak of World War II, the first group of researchers followed the lives of 268 sophomores from Harvard University.

That became much bigger than they thought, collecting a huge amount of data on the physical and mental health of the participants and then their families over decades. The study, of course, continues to this day.

A study that started in 1938

Evolution of one of the original participants. Harvard University

Of the original Harvard cohort recruited as part of the study, only about twenty are still alive, all of them in their 90s. Women were not part of the original study because the College was still exclusively male).

What’s more, the scientists expanded their research to include the children of these men, now 1,300 in their 50s and 60s, to find out how early life experiences affect health and aging over time. Some of the participants became successful businessmen, politicians (original recruits included US President John F. Kennedy), and others became schizophrenics or alcoholics.

With an initial cohort of 268 students, of those pioneers only about twenty are left alive

Over the subsequent decades, the control groups have expanded. In the 1970s, 456 residents of inner-city Boston took part in the study, and 40 of them are still alive. More than a decade ago, researchers began including wives in the Grant and Glueck studies, as the first and second cohorts were called, respectively.

Over the years researchers have studied the health trajectories of the participants and their lives, including their professional and personal triumphs and failures.

Friends and family, more than genes, are what give us a happy life

“The most surprising finding is that our relationships and how happy we are in them have a powerful influence on our health,” he said in an interview with the Harvard Gazette Robert Waldinger, director of the current study, and known for giving one of the most popular TED Talks in the wake of the study. “Caring for the body is important, but caring for relationships is also a form of self-care. That’s, I think, the big reveal.”

So what makes us happy? Observing subjects and their lives shows that close relationships, more than money or fame, are what keep people happy throughout their lives, as revealed by the study. These ties protect people from life’s upsets, help slow mental and physical decline, and are better predictors of a long and happy life than social class, IQ, or even genes. This finding turned out to be true in all cases, both in the Harvard men and in the Boston participants who joined later.

Satisfaction in personal relationships weighs more heavily on having a healthy and happy life than other indicators

Researchers who have pored over the data, including their medical records and hundreds of in-person interviews and questionnaires, have found a strong correlation between the subjects’ happy lives and their relationships with family and friends. They found that people’s level of satisfaction with their social relationships at age 50 was a better predictor of physical health than your cholesterol levels.

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“When we put together everything we knew about them at age 50, it wasn’t their midlife cholesterol levels that predicted how they would age,” Waldinger said in his popular TED talk. “It was how satisfied they were in their relationships. People who were the most satisfied in their relationships at age 50 were the healthiest at age 80.”

And good social and couple relationships also result in fewer addictions

The researchers also found that a good relationship has a protective effect on people’s mental health. Part of a study found that people in happy marriages in their 80s reported that their moods didn’t suffer even on days when they had the most physical pain. Those in unhappy marriages felt more emotional and physical pain.

Those in close relationships lived longer and were happier, Waldinger said, and lonely people tended to die sooner. “Loneliness kills,” he said. “It is as powerful as smoking or alcoholism.”

According to the study, those who lived longer and were in good health avoided smoking and excessive alcohol consumption. The researchers also found that those with strong social support experienced less mental decline as they got older.

“Good relationships not only protect our bodies; they protect our brains,” Waldinger said in his TED talk. “And those good relationships, they don’t have to be fluid all the time. Some of our octogenarian couples might argue with each other day in and day out, but as long as they felt like they could count on each other when the going got tough, those arguments didn’t take their toll on their memories,” he said.

Such a long study that also shows the evolution of science

The study, like the rest of its original subjects, has had a long life, involving four directors, whose mandates reflected their medical interests and views of the time.

Under the first director, Clark Heath, which lasted from 1938 to 1954, the study reflected the dominant view of genetics and biological determinism at the time. Early researchers believed that physical build, intellectual ability, and personality traits determined adult development. They made detailed anthropometric measurements of skulls, brow bridges, and moles, wrote detailed notes on the functioning of major organs, examined brain activity using electroencephalograms, and even analyzed the subjects’ handwriting.

Now, researchers draw their blood for DNA testing and put them into MRI scanners to examine the organs and tissues in their bodies.

After it would be the turn of the psychiatrist George Vaillant, who joined the team as a researcher in 1966, led the study from 1972 to 2004. Trained as a psychoanalyst, Vaillant emphasized the role of relationships, coming to recognize the crucial role they played in people living long lives. And pleasant.

In a book titled age well, Vaillant wrote that six factors predicted healthy aging for Harvard men: physical activity, freedom from alcohol abuse and smoking, coping mechanisms, and enjoying a healthy weight and a stable marriage.

The study has also shown that the role of genetics was less important for longevity than the level of satisfaction with relationships in midlife, now recognized as a good indicator of healthy aging. The research also debunked the idea that someone’s personality is set in their 30s. and does not tend to change. They saw it in cases in which misbehavior or alcoholism happened both in young people who later rectified it and in adults already 50 years old when they went through a bad patch.

Waldinger, fourth director of the study, has extended the investigation to the wives and children of the original men. This is the second generation study, and Waldinger hopes to expand it to the third and fourth. “It will probably never stop”said about the future of research.