The questions of happiness - how it can be defined and achieved, how much of it one needs to have a good life - are timeless philosophical questions. However, the Harvard Study of Adult Development, the longest study of adult life that spans more than eight decades, has revealed what might be a simple secret to a happier, healthier and potentially longer life.
An American psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Robert Waldinger and his research partner Marc Schulz summarise the lessons from this research in the book "The Good Life: Lessons from the World's Longest Scientific Study of Happiness."
According to Waldinger, the forth director of the study that has been conducted since 1938, good, warm connections with other people (or "secure attachment relationships," i.e. close, meaningful relationships in which one feels safe and stable) don't only make our lives more fulfilling, they also keep us healthier.
On the other hand, people who are more lonely or socially isolated develop the age-related diseases earlier and live shorter lives compared to people who aren't lonely and have good social connections. More than that, in terms of risks posed by loneliness to one's health (for example, coronary arteries and joints), in one of his interviews Waldinger compared it to smoking half a pack of cigarettes a day.
The researcher points out that, no matter whether a person is introverted or extraverted, "it is essential to have at least one or two trusting and secure relationships in life." For example, researchers asked study participants who they could call in the middle of the night if they were sick or scared. Some participants couldn't name a single person.
According to Loneliness and Mental Health report, in 2016 to 2017, 1 in 20 (5%) of adults in the UK said they "often or always" felt lonely, with younger adults (16 to 24 years old) reporting feeling lonely more often than older people. This number rose to 7.2% of all adults
during the coronavirus pandemic.
Robert Waldinger also stresses that people who are most active in maintaining relationships (for example, their existing friendships) via small actions like dropping a message, reaching out, having a chat over a cup coffee from time to time are the happiest. Having a trusted person to confide in and share our worries or concerns with, in turn, helps maintain physical health as well, because, as one possible explanation goes, it protects us from chronic stress.
"Spending quality time with people we care about, or with whom we have a common hobby, is essential to feeling fulfilled and taking care of our health," concludes Waldinger.