The Key To Happiness

The findings from ongoing research on Adult Development initiated in 1938– for 85 years!; over 8 decades!! – may surprise you. The indisputable prediction of the key to happiness is having strong relationships throughout one’s life, regardless of health status, wealth, or education. The methods to learn the key to happiness (the authors emphasize that it is really well-being, a broader umbrella) include participant surveys every 2 years, health record reviews every 5 years, DNA tests, and in person interviews every 15 years. The results of the longest scientific happiness study to date are broken down in the book, The Good Life, by Waldinger and Shulz.  

The Harvard Study has made headlines again this year, perhaps due to the book publication.  However, periodic updates from the study have been published regularly for many years and those of you who have been following us know that we regularly emphasize the importance of social well-being and connections as being as important, or perhaps more important than physical health. 

Dr. Waldinger is a psychiatrist who took over the Harvard Study of Adult Development more than 30 years ago. Though quite significant, the study isn’t without limitations. First, the participants are only Americans and initially for decades were only white males attending Harvard.  Decades ago, the study combined with another Harvard one and added family members in the research. Both created more ethnically diverse participants which also includes more women. However, diversity remains an issue since new participants can’t be added due to the ongoing data collection from long term participants.

The results are still believed to be generalizable to all adult populations. The purpose of the research is to determine what helps people live flourishing lives and what causes situations that diminish flourishing. Researchers are continuing to study well-being throughout life stages including mental health, physical health, work-life well-being, and relationships. Regardless of the ups and downs in all aspects of life, the most unexpected finding has been the predictive pattern the quality of relationships has on well-being. 

In the workplace, managers and most wellness programs focus on self-care which is an element of well-being. Based on this study as well as other studies, there have been 100s of articles published demonstrating the importance of living a healthy lifestyle, such as reducing controllable risks, not smoking, eating well, controlling weight, and increasing physical activity. Yet despite following healthy guidelines for self-care, the critical missing element with this limited focus is the most surprising key finding in this research – a healthy lifestyle doesn’t matter if it’s one that does not include strong relationships: those who have warm relationships and connections to others remain healthier and live longer than those who do not, regardless of lifestyle self-care factors! 

In an interview with Harvard Business, Dr. Waldinger mentioned that it was not only surprising, but shocking to the team that relationships could change physiology and keep individuals healthier and not just happier. 

In addition, findings during interviews with participants who were in their 80’s revealed 2 key foundational themes. One theme identified participant regrets. A significant and the main regret was the wish that they had spent more time with people they cared about rather than working more. The other regret was that they wished they hadn’t spent time worrying about what others thought and instead lived their authentic selves. 

The other theme noted during the late in life interviews, was regarding what the participants were proudest of. Can you guess?! Their proudest moments had to do with relationships with others. Being a good partner, good friend, good mentor at work, good boss, and raising good kids were identified as meaning the most to them, and what they were proudest of. It was HOW they were in relationships that mattered.

A powerful quote from an article summary by Alexa Mikhail (Keys to Happiness) captures the essence of the themes, “It’s not that accomplishment isn’t important and satisfying. It is,” Waldinger says. “But when we sacrifice our [relationships], that’s when we end up regretting it, and living a life that isn’t as good as we might have.” During the Harvard Business interview, Waldinger also said the study findings indicate that yes, accomplishments are meaningful in their own right, but “… wealth is empty …and recognition lasts minutes.” He said that badges of distinctions (recognition) aren’t enough for long-term well-being. 

Certainly, what we are paid for work is a validation of meaningful contributions and an indicator of stability. But as income goes up are people happier?  Other studies found no, not so much, and this study confirms this. Once basic material needs are met, about $75,000/year – when poverty and making a living wage are removed as factors impacting well-being – making more money above that amount does not increase happiness/well-being. 

Finding meaningful work and having a job that you are passionate about do enhance well-being. However, having friends and relationships at work are more important and are what motivates individuals to look forward to going to work! Strong relationships matter, not just in our personal lives but in our work lives as well, regardless of your level within the hierarchical structure, even CEOs interviewed for other studies reported feeling lonely.

The researchers are now factoring in how the pandemic impacted engagement at work and/or in life and how both have impacted well-being. There certainly have been indications that feeling isolated has negatively impacted well-being, contributing to loneliness and a sense of languishing.  

Loneliness is a known stressor. Humans are social creatures, and we don’t want to be isolated from our connections. In fact, it is about survival as was well as stress levels. Individuals who are chronically isolated are more stressed and in a constant state of fight or flight mode. This causes chronic inflammation, deteriorating health and well-being by causing breakdowns in multiple body systems.  

What can organizations do to enhance employee well-being, happiness, and health?

  • Include social well-being and relationship building as a key component of your wellness initiatives – and foster both during all work initiatives.
  • Create spaces for employees to socialize at work including when working remotely.
  • Encourage positive interactions when working, and perhaps schedule social events (social events and outings without a work culture of social well-being may not be beneficial).
  • Consider social activities such as book clubs, volunteer projects, and even physical activities.
  • Promote welcomeness and acceptance that fosters feelings of belonging and connection.
  • Cultivate self-awareness and self-reflection using tools such as mindful meditation techniques. (Dr. Waldinger is a Zen practitioner, promoting meditation and awareness of self and others).
  • Foster active listening for managers and employees. Giving our undivided attention during conversations is a gift but is a skill that needs to be cultivated and practiced.
  • Demonstrate the value of relationships and taking time to reach out to those important to you – Show your team that it’s not just about working harder.
  • Limit overtime and encourage your team to take time off.
  • Establish a policy against after hour email, texts, and work calls, unless when necessary. Instead, encourage to spend time contacting friends and family.

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