We’re spending each month of 2018 exploring a different topic to improve our lives. Consistent with that goal, we’ve spent a lot of time this year exploring happiness.
In April we looked into the science of happiness.
In May we learned about the intersection of money and happiness.
And in July we jumped into happiness and philosophy.
For September, we’re going to spend one last month learning about happiness. This time we’ll be exploring the factor that may be the single most important: relationships.
The Harvard Men’s Study
In 1938, Harvard started studying a group of students (all men, as Harvard did not admit women at the time) with the intent to follow their progression over time. The goal was to develop an in-depth longitudinal study that would give us insight into how people’s health develops over time and what impacts different habits, activities, and other factors have.
The study eventually expanded to include these men’s children and wives. It also expanded beyond health and into happiness.
George Vaillant, a psychologist who led the study for a time says that they found “70 years of evidence that our relationships with other people matter, and matter more than anything else in the world.”
Strength of relationships at age 50 was the best predictor of health at age 80. It was also far and away the strongest factor in whether people were happy.
Rich and Satisfying Relationships
While a study of men that went to Harvard and their families is hardly representative, other studies have found the same thing.
Ed Diener and Martin Seligman, two giants in the world of happiness research, studied the differences between very happy people and unhappy people. The largest differences between the groups was that the happier people had “rich and satisfying social relationships.”
One study even found that relationships, as quantified by number of friends, closeness of friends, closeness of family, and relationships with co-workers and neighbors accounted for 70 percent of a person’s happiness.
While our study of the science of happiness suggests this is an overstatement once we account for genetic factors, it is enough to suggest that relationships are most likely the most important contributor to our happiness that is within our control.
This becomes even more clear when we look at studies of the happiness of the unemployed.
These studies find that happiness is determined less by the length of unemployment and more by the strength of people’s relationships with family and friends.
This makes sense. If we have weak relationships with family and friends, this can be papered over with work. We’re around our coworkers for at least 40 hours a week and are forced into relationships. If that is taken away, we need to have outside relationships to catch us.
If we have relationships to fall back on, we can stay happy through months and even years of struggling to find work. If we don’t, then even being out of work for a couple months becomes difficult to bear.
This focus on relationships makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. Our ancient ancestors needed relationships to survive.
Early humans couldn’t lock their doors at night. They needed to rely on others for protection while they slept.
They needed to work as a team to defend each other against predators and other dangers.
They couldn’t go down to McDonald’s to get a burger. They had to work together to catch or grow their food.
Losing your relationships was a death sentence.
Rewards and Incentives
The human brain evolved over millions of years in a way that would encourage us to do things that are good for survival.
For most of that development time, nothing was more important to our survival than relationships.
It makes sense then, that our brains are programed to seek out relationships and to reward us with happiness when we develop them.
Often when we try to understand evolutionary development around here it is because we want to learn where our brain is tricking us into sub-optimal behavior. But in this case, I advise following your brain!
A significant part of our happiness is outside of our control. The largest factor that is in our control, however, is the strength of our relationships. If we want to be happier, we need to start with the people around us.
Join the Conversation!
How have you found relationships to impact your happiness? Do you have any tips for strengthening relationships? How about starting new ones? Let us know in the comments!