I think a lot of us are interested in the secret to living a fulfilling life. And obviously, there are a lot of contenders. Some might say living a full and rich life means having a successful career, making a lot of money, having fame or notoriety, having a big house with a big family and a large social network.
There’s nothing wrong with aiming for any, or all, of these things, but the fact is, you can’t necessarily have it all, and I think most of us spend a lot of time chasing after what we think will make us happy. Then once we find it, we realize it wasn’t everything we thought it would be.
Thus, the good scientists at Harvard decided to get to the bottom of it for us.
For over 75 years, Harvard’s Study of Adult Development has tracked the physical and emotional well-being of two populations: 456 inner-city men in Boston from 1939 to 2014 (under the Glueck Study), and 268 male graduates from Harvard’s classes of 1939-1944 (the Grant Study).
This was an incredibly long-term study, and it included multiple researchers over a very long period of time. They analyzed blood samples, conducted brain scans (once they became available), and pored over self-reported surveys, along with interactions with the men, to compile the their findings.
What they found is that the majority of all that stuff I listed in the introduction isn’t all that important to living a full and rich life. I know many of you are saying, “Well duh, man,” but you might not be expecting what comes next. Robert Waldinger, director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, told Inc. that “the clearest message that we get from this 75-year study is this: Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period.”
So let’s think about that.
It doesn’t matter how many Facebook friends you have, or Instagram followers, or if your Twitter page is verified. It doesn’t really matter how many books you wrote, or how many degrees you earned, or what the balance is in your bank account, or how many square feet your home is. What matters are the relationships you invested in over time. The love you gave, and the love you received.
“It’s not just the number of friends you have, and it’s not whether or not you’re in a committed relationship,” says Waldinger. “It’s the quality of your close relationships that matters.”
Quality over quantity.
The keywords here are quality and love.
I know this all sounds very Hallmark, but I don’t think it should necessarily surprise anyone. We’ve all heard it for years. There’s even a song about it, “All you need is love…”
Now this isn’t to say that all those other things don’t contribute to relationships. They do. And they bring that up in the study too.
George Vaillant, the Harvard psychiatrist who directed the study from 1972 to 2004, explained that there are two foundational elements to this. “One is love. The other is finding a way of coping with life that does not push love away,” he told Inc. I think that second part is the kicker there, the part that likely causes many of us a few hangups.
What I think this study boils down too though is that a fulfilling life looks like not choosing your job over the people you love. It looks like not working weekends just to get ahead (for some, working weekends is not a choice — I recognize that) rather than attending your child’s sporting event or not taking your spouse out to dinner because you’d rather watch TV. It basically means prioritizing. And on a personal level, it made me think about my first year of graduate school.
I was trying to get through a three-year program with two kids and a wife. I also had a pretty demanding graduate assistantship. I recall leaving early, only to come home late from school, grab a sandwich, and then go down in the basement to do more studying. In my mind, I felt like I was doing the right thing for my family. And long term, finishing school has been very good for us. But thinking back, I was pushing them out to try to get ahead, and to get done faster.
This came to a climax around my second year, when my wife, Mel, sat me down and told me that she needed more from me. She needed me to be more involved with the running of our family even though I was in school, and I felt like I was between a rock and a hard place with trying to juggle it all. Eventually we came to the compromise that I would eat dinner with the family each night that I didn’t have a late class. And I’d take Sundays off from studying to spend time with my kids, pitch in around the house, and give my wife a break.
Thinking back, it felt like I was never going to get all my schoolwork done. But now I realize that this compromise may have had me staying up late to complete my tasks, but ultimately it also saved our marriage and helped me feel more fulfilled as a father. And now, after reading this study, I understand I might just live longer and have a more fulfilling life because I made time for that relationship — so maybe I should go thank my wife for calling me out.
Melanie Curtin of Inc. came to a similar conclusion while writing about this study:
“The next time you’re scrolling through Facebook instead of being present at the table with your significant other, or you’re considering staying late at the office instead of getting together with your close friend, or you catch yourself working on a Saturday instead of going to the farmer’s market with your sister, consider making a different choice.”
Ultimately, though, I think that’s the point of this long study. They want to use these findings to illustrate to people what is really important in life. Sure, we all kind of knew it, but now we have science to back it up, to make it sink in a little deeper.
“Relationships are messy and they’re complicated,” Waldinger told Inc. “The good life is built with good relationships.” There you have it.