I just read a very interesting article in The Atlantic about a seven decade study that followed 268 Harvard undergrads throughout their life with the single question: “What makes us happy?”  (The official study is called the “Harvard Study of Adult Development”).

You can read the full article here: http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200906/happiness/1

The study found 7 major criteria for a happy life:

  • Employing mature adaptations *
  • Education
  • Stable marriage
  • Not smoking
  • Not abusing alcohol
  • Moderate exercise
  • Healthy weight

*Psychoanalytic metaphor of “adaptations,” or unconscious responses to pain, conflict, or uncertainty

I found this passage notable:

Of the 106 Harvard men who had five or six of these factors in their favor at age 50, half ended up at 80 as what [the author] called “happy-well” and only 7.5 percent as “sad-sick.” Meanwhile, of the men who had three or fewer of the health factors at age 50, none ended up “happy-well” at 80. Even if they had been in adequate physical shape at 50, the men who had three or fewer protective factors were three times as likely to be dead at 80 as those with four or more factors.

The purpose of the study was to determine who ages well and is happy and well adjusted.  Being unhappy may lead to drinking or drugs.  Drinking may cause a spouse to leave.  Depression can lead to more unhealthy living or unfulfilled aspirations.  On the other hand, having a good education may offer more opportunities in life to perform good works or be actively engaged.  Maintaining a healthy family life may boost self-esteem and cause people to stay healthy or productive.

It is easy to weave these factors together and understand how they interact and compound each other.

So says the author of the study after decades of research: “That the only thing that really matters in life are your relationships to other people.”