What Keeps Us Happy and Healthy in Retirement

People walking down a path together where one is using a walker, another is using a cane and another sitting in a wheelchair.

For all the effort and resources medical research invests in finding out what makes people sick, few studies have delved into what makes us happy. The most substantial effort, which breaks this pattern, began with a team of visionary researchers at Harvard who started the longest running study of human happiness and longevity way back in 1938.

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“The researchers followed 268 healthy sophomores from Harvard classes between 1939 and 1949,” describes Maria Popova in her blog Brain Pickings. “It was a project revolutionary in both ambition and impact, nothing like it done before or since,” she says. Another group, 456 boys from Boston’s most impoverished neighbourhoods, who lived in cold-water tenement flats, were included in the study.

In his illuminating TED talk, Harvard psychologist and study of adult development director, Robert Waldinger, shares what this unprecedented research has revealed.  Waldinger was the latest of four generations of scientists working on the project. With the unflinching solidity of 75 years of data, the research is able to make convincing arguments about the building blocks of happiness, longevity, and the ingredients of a meaningful life.

Waldinger asks: “What keeps us happy and healthy as we move through life?” According to him, the majority of Millennials who are asked this question state that getting rich or famous is the best way to be happy and healthy.

In contrast, “the clearest message that we get from this 75-year study is this: good relationships keep us happier and healthier,” reports Waldinger.

Three big lessons about relationships that the Harvard researchers discovered are:

  1. People who are connected to friends, family and community are healthier and happier. They live longer that those who are less connected.
  2. The experience of loneliness is toxic. Health declines earlier in mid-life, brain function deteriorates sooner and people live shorter lives than those who are not lonely. Family feuds also take a terrible toll on those who hold grudges.

    According to the Harvard study, it’s not just the number of friends you have. It’s the quality of your relationships. Like the famous saying goes, it’s about quality over quantity.

    “It turns out that living in conflict is really bad for your health,” according to Waldinger. “High conflict marriage is bad for your health, perhaps worse than getting divorced, while living in a warm, loving relationship is protective of your health.”

    Waldinger asks if the research team could predict, by looking back at their subjects, who would grow into happy, healthy 80 year olds. He remarks that it wasn’t their middle-life cholesterol levels that predicted how they were going to grow old. It was how satisfied they were in their relationships. Those who were most satisfied at age fifty were the healthiest at age eighty.

  3. The research found that good relationships didn’t just protect the subjects’ bodies; they protected their brains. Being in a secure relationship, where people feel they can count on the other person in times of need, indicates that the subject’s memory will stay sharper as they age. In contrast, those who feel they can’t count on their partner in times of need, experience an earlier decline in memory

Waldinger adds that some of the couples studied “bickered day in and day out,” but as long as they could count on each other, their memories stayed sharper than those who could not.

In every finding, Waldinger emphasizes that as humans, we’re all searching for quick fixes, but over the long term, fame, wealth or high achievement didn’t keep people happy or healthy as much as good relationships.

As well, the people who were happiest in retirement were those who worked to replace their workmates with new playmates.

Those of us already retired, or planning to retire, have much to learn from this massive, revolutionary study. For a comprehensive description of its findings, you can look for Triumphs of Experience: The Men of the Harvard Grant Study by Harvard psychologist, George E. Vaillant (Waldinger’s predecessor), who spent thirty years as the director of the study.

As for me, I’m going to spend less time focusing on material circumstances or the opinions of others and more time figuring out what makes me happy. Much of it is right in my own backyard.

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