The Real Secret to Happiness

Most of us, as parents and as people, want to experience a happy life. We want our children to be happy.

But what is the secret to happiness?

Diane Wagenhals, Program Director, Master Trainer, Curricula Writer, Researcher, Mother and Grandmother

In November 2015, psychiatrist Robert Waldinger, a director of research at Harvard School of Adult Development, posted a Ted Talk in which he revealed the outcomes of a 75-year study on happiness.

The researchers from Harvard tracked the lives of 724 men, starting in their adolescence, for 75 years. Many died before the 75 years ended, but about 60 men remained, most of them now in their 90s.  The 75-year-study focused on discovering what truly made these men happy in life.

Dr. Waldinger began with: “What keeps us healthy and happy as we go through life? If you are going to invest now in your future best self, where would you put your time and your energy? There was a recent survey of millennial’s asking them what their most important life goals were, and over 80% said that a major life goal for them was to get rich. And another 50% of those same young adults said that another major life goal was to become famous. And we are constantly told to lean into work, to push harder and achieve more. We are given the impression that these are the things that we need to go after in order to have a good life.”

Where do parents put their time and energy?

How many of us as parents put our time and energy into making money and then showering our children with all the best toys and clothes and opportunities to engage in sports or other extracurricular activities?

How many of our children believe happiness comes if you are famous or at least highly admired in your social circles? How many of our children feel like failures if they don’t have evidence of material wealth or popularity?

It turns out that these two frequently desired goals: wealth and fame, are not the keys to happiness.

Dr. Waldinger concluded his Ted Talk with the following. “So what have we learned? What are the lessons that come from the tens of thousands of pages of information that we’ve generated on these lives?

“Well, the lessons are not about wealth or fame or working harder and harder. The clearest message that we get from the 75-year study is this: Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period.”

He goes on to talk about three big lessons learned about relationships.

First, “ social connections are really good for us, and loneliness kills. It turns out the people who are more socially connected to family, two friends, to community, are happier, they are physically healthier, and they live longer than people who are less well-connected.

“In the experience, loneliness turns out to be toxic. People who are more isolated than they want to be from others find that they are less happy, their health declines earlier in midlife, their brain functioning declines sooner, and they live shorter lives than people who are not lonely.

“And the sad fact is that at any given time, more than one in five Americans will report that they’re lonely.”

Second, “… the big lesson we learned is that it’s not just the number of friends you have—and it’s not whether or not you’re in a committed relationship—but it’s the quality of your close relationships that matter.

“It turns out that living in the midst of conflict is really bad for our health. High-conflict marriages, for example, without much affection, turn out to be very bad for our health, perhaps worse than getting divorced. And living in the midst of good, warm relationships is protective.”

Third, … “What we learned about relationships and our health is that good relationships don’t just protect our bodies, they protect our brains. It turns out that being in a securely attached relationship to another person in your 80s is protective, that the people who are in relationships where they really feel they can count on the other person in times of need, those people’s memories stay sharp or longer.

Wisdom old as the hills.

“So this message, that good, close relationships are good for our health and well-being, this is the wisdom that’s as old as the hills.

“Why is this so hard to get and so easy to ignore? Well, we’re human. What we’d really like is a quick fix, something we can get that will make our lives good and keep them that way.

“Relationships are messy, and their complicated, and the hard work of tending to family and friends is not sexy or glamorous.

It’s also lifelong. It never ends …

“Over the 75 years, our study has shown that the people who fared the best were the people who leaned into relationships with family, with friends, with community.”

I think there is an important take away for parents who want to be happy and have happy children:

It is important to shift values away from materialism, popularity, and fame and onto building and maintaining healthy relationships.

Focusing on both quality and quantity in terms of time spent with children, being attuned, expressing love, compassion, patience, and appreciation for each child as a unique individual, special to everyone in their family, will go much further in promoting the eventual deep-seated happiness all children deserve.

This focus can improve the lives of our children today and for their futures. It can contribute to our happiness as well!  Pretty important stuff! Thank you, Harvard University!

Invitation for Reflection

  1. What first came to your mind when you thought about the secret to happiness?
  2. What are some things you can do to promote happiness in your life and in the lives of your children based on this information?

Diane Wagenhals, Director of Lakeside Global Institute, Lakeside


Images source: All from Comstock