Harvard's 85-Year Study Reveals the Secret to a Happy Life: Strong Relationships

When George Vaillant first took over the Harvard Study of Adult Development in 1972, he had no idea the profound truth it would reveal.

The study, which began tracking 268 Harvard sophomores in 1938, has become one of the longest studies of adult life ever conducted.

Over 80 years, researchers meticulously collected data on the physical and mental health of the participants. 

What Vaillant and his team discovered was surprising.

The clearest message that emerged from the tens of thousands of pages of data was this:
Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period.

The Power of Connection:

The Harvard study revealed that the quality of our relationships at age 50 was a better predictor of health at age 80 than cholesterol levels, exercise habits, or even IQ. Those who were most satisfied in their relationships at age 50 were the healthiest at age 80. Conversely, those who were in unhappy relationships or were lonely had declining health earlier in midlife and even diminished brain functioning.

This groundbreaking finding has been corroborated by numerous other studies. A meta-analysis of 148 studies found that the influence of social relationships on the risk of death are comparable with well-established risk factors for mortality such as smoking and alcohol consumption and exceed the influence of other risk factors such as physical inactivity and obesity.1

The Toll of Loneliness:

On the flip side, the Harvard study also highlighted the devastating impact of loneliness. Loneliness kills. It's as powerful as smoking or alcoholism. The study found that people who were more isolated than they wanted to be from others were less happy, their health declined earlier in midlife, their brain functioning declined sooner, and they lived shorter lives than people who were not lonely.2

This is particularly concerning given the rising rates of loneliness, especially among youth.

In a recent survey, 61% of young adults (aged 18-25) reported serious loneliness.3 

With the COVID-19 pandemic further exacerbating social isolation, the mental health of our youth is in crisis.

The Missing Piece in Education:

Despite the overwhelming evidence of the importance of relationships, our education system often fails to prioritize the development of social-emotional skills. We place a heavy emphasis on academic achievement and college readiness, but we neglect to teach students how to build and maintain healthy relationships

This is a critical oversight.

The skills to foster strong connections—empathy, active listening, vulnerability, conflict resolution—are not innate. They need to be taught and practiced, just like math or reading.

Equipping Youth with Relational Skills:

This is where programs like RIQ: Grad Gateway come in.

By teaching relational intelligence—the ability to understand and manage one's own emotions and those of others, to communicate effectively, to resolve conflicts, and to build and maintain positive relationships—we can equip youth with the tools they need to thrive. We’re currently offering a special discount for the Class of ‘24: use code “RIQ2024”.

Imagine if every high school senior graduated not just with a diploma, but with a toolkit of relational skills. Skills to build a supportive network, navigate challenges with resilience, and foster a sense of belonging. These are the skills that will serve them not just in college, but throughout their lives.

A Call to Action:

The message from the Harvard study is clear:
The good life is built with good relationships.

As educators, parents, and community members, we have a responsibility to prioritize the development of relational intelligence in our youth. 

By integrating programs like RIQ into our educational landscape, we can equip the next generation with the skills to build lives rich in connection and meaning. In a world that's increasingly disconnected, this may be the most important lesson we can teach.

Dr. Elisha—creator of RIQ—is a clinical psychologist who has been treating patient symptoms stemming from this lack of relational education for over 30 years. 

In the end, the Harvard study reminds us of a simple but powerful truth: Relationships matter.

It's not the quantity of friends you have, or whether or not you're in a committed relationship, but the quality of your close relationships that matters.

Investing in the development of relational intelligence in our youth is an investment in their lifelong happiness and health.

Let's give them the tools to build a life filled not just with accomplishments, but with meaningful connections.

1 Holt-Lunstad, J., Smith, T. B., & Layton, J. B. (2010). Social relationships and mortality risk: a meta-analytic review. PLoS medicine, 7(7), e1000316. 
2 Mineo, L. (2017). Good genes are nice, but joy is better. The Harvard Gazette.
3 Cigna. (2018). Cigna U.S. Loneliness Index.

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