Happiness is Love

Why Our Connection to Others is the Most Important Investment We Can Make in Life

by Emily Strong

January 3, 2016

For many, the end of the calendar year is an invitation to reflect. For my husband and I, reflecting on the year happens without champagne and the clock striking midnight, but by accident approximately three weeks before New Year’s Eve when we realize the deadline for printing holiday cards is upon us. It’s an impromptu date on an uneventful evening with iPhoto. We pull up our chairs to a desk overflowing with mail, to do lists, a scrap piece of paper with my middle aged attempt to help our middle school son factor polynomials, a mild panic and a steely resolve to locate a decent picture for our annual Christmas card — preferably before midnight. It begins year in and year out as a massive data dump from our phones, iPads and cameras. The goal is to quickly find a picture where the lighting is not too bad and both kids are looking near the camera. The result is different.

I’m tired and maybe a little stressed and grumpy. The holidays are upon us and there are countless events and activities. Having us both home on the same night uninterrupted by work, a meeting or kid activity is rare during the month of December and I am focused. Pictures begin to appear in stops and starts as the computer works its magic. A seasons worth of pictures rushes by and I catch a glimpse of one of my son’s rosy cheeks. It’s fall and a flurry of orange and red dashes across the screen. I begin to remember what I have forgotten and I soften into my chair.

Pictures fly by in a millisecond, and with each, a rapid fire memory flashes before me — the bright excitement on my youngest child’s face when he asked for another cotton candy at the school carnival. The tired but determined look in my oldest son’s eyes as he pitches in the final of three games to move on to the playoffs. Three frames later when the camera captures his disappointment in those same eyes when they lose. My husband gleefully loading pumpkins from the pumpkin patch we’ve been going to since the kids were babies; his flannel shirt caught by the breeze as he leans into the back of the truck. It’s gone in a flash and we’re on to a montage of summer shots at the pool swimming, eating grilled cheese and potato chips, ketchup caught on my son’s lip, ping pong and foosball tables in the background.

As the pictures flash by, I realize it is a slide show of our lives. Annie Dillard said, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives,” and she is right. These moments, at once ordinary and existential, are the stuff of all our lives. The people we love and who love us back, the time and experiences we share together and the connection we have to one another are critical ingredients in living a happy and meaningful life.

In November, psychiatrist Robert Waldinger gave a TED talk entitled, What Makes a Good Life? Lessons From the Longest Study on Happiness. He is the current director of a 75 year old study on adult development. It is an unprecedented study tracking the lives of 724 American men for 76 years. The study began in 1938 with 268 young men of the Harvard classes between 1939 and 1944, and a second arm was added to the study in 1970 with 456 young men from inner-city Boston. The goal of the study was to identify factors for healthy aging. What has followed is a gold mine of information.

The participants have answered biennial questionnaires, given permission for health information to be shared from their doctors, sat for in-depth interviews, undergone neuroimaging scans and given blood for DNA analysis. Most recently, the study has included their wives as participants. There have been four directors of the study since its inception. The most recent directors are George Vaillant, who stepped down in 2003 after being at the helm for 30 years, and Robert Waldinger who currently runs the study.

Both Vaillant and Waldinger, in summarizing the massive amounts of data they’ve studied, have come to the same conclusion. Relationships matter. Waldinger says the research clearly states, “people that were most satisfied in their relationships at age 50, were the healthiest people in their 80’s,” and, “Good relationships keep us healthier and happier. Period.” When Vaillant was asked, “What have you learned from the Grant Study men?” He didn’t hesitate, “The only thing that really matters in life are your relationships to other people.” He went on to say, “Happiness is love. Full stop.” To read his incredible interview on the men in the study and his research findings, click here.

To see Robert Waldinger’s TED talk on What Makes a Good Life? Lessons from the Longest Study on Happiness, see below.

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