www.inc.com /bill-murphy-jr/how-to-be-happy-according-to-leaders-of-an-85-year-harvard-study-on-happiness.html

How to Be Happy, According to the Leaders of an 85-Year Harvard Study on Happiness

Bill Murphy Jr. 5-6 minutes 2/26/2023

What if I were to tell you that the secret to a happy life comes down to a simple two-word concept that most people never think of?

That's what I learned from talking with one of the leaders of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, an 85-year-and-running longitudinal study of 724 participants (and now their spouses and children) that set out to discover what makes people happy in life.

Almost a decade ago, Dr. Robert Waldinger, a Harvard psychologist who has run the study since 2003, did a TEDx Talk in which he summarized the most important takeaway:

"The lessons aren't about wealth or fame or working harder and harder. The clearest message that we get from this ... study is this: Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period."

Now, Waldigner and the associate director of the study, Marc Shulz, a clinical psychologist and professor at Bryn Mawr College, have a new book out about the study and its lessons, called The Good Life.

And if good relationships are the key to happiness, they say in the book that the key to developing those good relationships comes down to a novel concept -- the two words we talked about at the beginning of this article: "social fitness."

"There are practices that people can do," Sculz told me in a recent interview. "We talk a lot in the book about this idea of social fitness, that we tend to think of our relationships as something that just happens, but oftentimes our relationships wane over time. We all have friendships, for example, that we've lost contact with, but that were important to us."

Shulz and Waldinger suggest that the first step in improving social fitness involves, "assessing where you're doing well, and where you might need help."

That can mean literally writing down an audit of your relationships -- who they're with, how they're satisfying, and where you'd like to see improvement. They've also identified seven "keystones of support" that they say are especially useful in assessing relationships.

These include the following categories that they expounded on in a separate article (annotated here with my summaries):

  1. "Safety and security." These are the relationships you can count on in an emergency, or to help you through a difficult time.
  2. "Learning and growth." These might be the mentors and cheerleaders who encourage you to want more in life and to do more to achieve it.
  3. "Learning and growth." Are there people in your life that you'd feel comfortable baring your soul to? And would they feel the same about you?
  4. "Identity affirmation and shared experience." These are the relationships with people who "get" you, because they've been through things that are similar to the things you've been through.
  5. "Romantic intimacy." I suppose this one is self-explanatory!
  6. "Help (both informational and practical)." The focus here is on practical help. Who are the people you'd call if you needed to fix something, or figure out how do do something?
  7. "Fun and relaxation." It's funny, this is just one of the seven categories but I think it's the reflexive one we might think of when we think of friends. These are the people you can get together with and just unwind or have a good time.

Perhaps an audit and categories like this combine to seem like an especially calculated way to improve relationships.

But, the point is that it's very difficult to improve things you haven't measured. And, it's especially hard ot know afterward whether you actually have improved them.

Just as importantly, it's never too late. In fact, as Shulz reminded me in our interview, there's an entire chapter in the book entitled "Better Late Than Never."

"One of the virtues of studying people across decades of their lives is that you get to see the ways in which they grow and change," Shulz said, adding: "A big emphasis in the book is that you can do stuff right now."

There are a whole list of practical, tactical things you can do to develop and rekindle relationships, which I've outlined in a previous article.

But it struck me while devouring the book and interviewing Shulz how much emotional intelligence comes into play here -- a subject about which I happen to have written an entire free ebook: 9 Smart Habits of People With Very High Emotional Intelligence.

It's all about the idea of getting out of your head, overcoming your fears and other negative emotions, and digging up the courage to nurture relationships to improve your happiness: a comparatively small emotional sacrifice that can pay massive dividends.

"Relationships have all this incredible promise," Shulz told me, but "being brave makes us vulnerable. That's part of what's scary about relationships."