It has taken nearly 80 years and a slew of research studies focused around healthy aging to come up with the end result: wealth and a good genetic makeup really have little to do with our amount of joy. The Harvard Study of Adult Development started in 1938, delving into the lives of such high-profile participants as Ben Bradlee and John F. Kennedy. Through the years, it has been broadened to incorporate inner-city residents as well as offspring from the original Harvard elite, and the outcomes were surprising, to say the least.
It was established that the greatest predictors of a long and happy life were not IQ, genetics, fame, finances, or social status, but quite simply, close relationships. Robert Waldinger, director of the research study and a psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital as well as a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, explains, “The people who were the most satisfied in their relationships at age 50 were the healthiest at age 80. Loneliness kills. It’s as powerful as smoking or alcoholism.”
Psychiatrist George Vaillant, who spearheaded the research between 1972 – 2004, shared in his book “Aging Well: Surprising Guideposts to a Happier Life from the Landmark Harvard Study of Adult Development” the contributing factors that predict healthy aging:
- The absence of smoking and alcohol abuse
- Physical activity
- Mature strategies to manage difficulties in life
- Sustaining a healthy weight
- Having a stable marriage
In a nutshell, self-care is crucial to our level of joy – from the perspective of both physical and mental health – and devoting time and effort to making your relationships the best they can be certainly falls under that umbrella as well. In fact, additional studies have uncovered that the level of contentment people experience in their relationships is an even better determinant of what their physical health will likely be later in life than physical factors like cholesterol levels.
The study also upended prior thinking that our personalities are set in stone by age 30. Many people who struggled in their early adult years enjoyed happier later years, while others succeeded at the beginning of life but ran into challenges later because of mental health issues and alcoholism.
The research continues on today, into its third and fourth generations, as researchers believe there is still more to understand, including how to better regulate stress and whether a difficult childhood makes a difference in middle age and later years.
As one of the leading home health agencies in Orange County, CA, CareWorks Health Services’ compassionate caregivers help instill joy in an older adult’s life; email or call us today! Our caregivers serve as warm and friendly companions to engage in exercise, conversations, and pleasant activities together, cultivating socialization and additional relational connections. You can reach us 24/7 at (949) 859-4700 to schedule a free in-home assessment to learn more.