It's really quite simple: love and you will be happy. Being connected and considerate to those dear to you – family or friends – is the secret to happiness, according to the Harvard Study of Adult Development, one of the world’s longest-running studies on adult life.
The ongoing study, which started in 1938 with 724 men (including a group of Harvard sophomores and men from Boston’s poorest neighbourhoods from troubled backgrounds), tracked the lives of participants in the hope of uncovering the “secrets” to a healthy and happy life.
The original cohort (which included President John F. Kennedy) were all male. Only 60 of the original group of men are still alive (and in their 80s and 90s and still participating in the study) but the research has since expanded: 2,000 people (women too), including some offspring of the original bunch.
The study wasn’t just done through interviews and questionnaires; researchers examined the participants’ medical reports, blood tests as well as scans of their brains over time. The study also video recorded the men talking about their deepest concerns with their wives. It also looked at their career trajectories and followed the triumphs and failures in their lives.
The findings: Good relationships make us happier and healthier. Social connections are closely linked with longevity, lower stress levels and overall well-being. We can have successful careers and all the money in the world, but for a good life and good health, we need to be socially connected to our family, friends and the community.
In Malaysia, a study led by Monash University Malaysia’s Dr Grace Lee Hooi Yean, among 1,300, randomly selected, Malaysians in Peninsular Malaysia and Sabah and Sarawak between 2012 and 2018 revealed that overall, Malaysians are quite happy – about 67% said that they were happy.
“However, compared to 2012, we are significantly less happy now than before and, across the board, the two main causes for discontent in 2018 was a lack of trust in the government and concerns about money: the high cost of living, the inability to save and so on.
“You may think that the respondents in the higher income bracket were happier in that respect but the study showed otherwise.
“In fact, the happiest people were from the poorer states. And, those with the highest education attainment were among the most unhappy and had the least life satisfaction, ” reveals Lee.
Demographically, the study included people from all over Malaysia, from different racial and ethnic groups and income levels.
“We interviewed those who had completed tertiary education as well as those who had limited access to education.
Females, she said, tended to have greater life satisfaction than males. Those who were involved in community service or voluntary organisations also reported higher levels of life satisfaction.
Among the age groups, the happiest were those between the ages of 18 and 20 and the unhappiest, those in their 30s to mid-life and also between the ages of 66 and 70.
Citing the Harvard Study, Lee agrees that relationships are key when it comes to achieving happiness.
“About 90% of our respondents said that family was very important to them. But we did not delve deeper into the quality of relationships our respondents had with their family. But our study did show that those who were involved with community work had greater life satisfaction, which is consistent with the findings of the Harvard study.
“Sometimes we forget, we are so busy and take things for granted but relationships are very important and need a lot of investment and time. We can have a good job and be highly educated but they don’t determine how happy we are, ” says Dr Lee.
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