This Study Shows The Number One Thing That Leads To Human Happiness

Contrary to what society shoves in our faces, fame, fortune, and success cannot guarantee happiness. So, what is the secret to being happy then?

By Caitlin Shaw5 min read

According to a longitudinal Harvard study, known as the Harvard Happiness Study, what will make your life better is not the size of your house, the type of car you drive, or even the success that you achieve. It’s the people you choose to keep in your life that determine your happiness. And it’s not enough to simply surround yourself with lots of friends at all times, it’s about the quality of those close relationships.

Over the course of 85 years, Harvard University researchers conducted a study in which they attempted to answer the burning question of what makes human beings truly happy. The study called on a sample of about 500-700 men, some of whom were wealthy and educated, while others belonged to underserved populations. Study participants were required to frequently fill out questionnaires and conduct interviews on nearly every aspect of their lives, from work to health to personal relationships.

Despite their different socioeconomic and educational backgrounds, the results led to the same conclusion: People who have deep and supportive relationships live longer, happier, and healthier lives than those who lack close relationships.

This study confirmed that, in terms of interpersonal relationships, quality is much more important than quantity. It was the participants who had the deepest connections who were the happiest, not necessarily the ones with the most connections. According to biological anthropologist Robin Dunbar, the human brain can only maintain 150 ties to other humans. However, the vast majority of those relationships are surface level because we only really need three to five deep connections in our lives, whether that’s family, friends, a romantic partner, or some combination of these.

The Power of Close Relationships

Think about the moments in your life where you’ve been the happiest. It could be a time when you achieved your goals or overcame a challenge, but the vast majority of your happiest memories are likely in the company of your family or friends.

Maybe it’s your wedding day, when you held your newborn son or daughter for the first time, or a really fun trip you went on with your best friends. When you share a moment like this and strengthen a close bond in your life, your brain releases dopamine and serotonin (referred to as “happy hormones”), which instantly lift your mood, decrease stress, and generally make you feel more positive. For this reason, the repeated strengthening of those close relationships over time is believed to make you a happier person and, therefore, to live a happier life.

The Harvard Happiness Study uncovered not only how critical social connection is for mental health but also revealed how important relationships are for our physical health. Close personal relationships are arguably one of the most influential controllable health factors that a human being has. If you’re attuned to the world of well-being news, you know how integrated the human mind and body are with one another, so it shouldn’t come as a shock that close relationships, which are so vital to positive mental health, are also a healing force when it comes to physical health.

According to psychiatrist and director of the Harvard Happiness Study Robert Waldinger, close ties protect people from life’s difficulties, help delay mental and physical decline, and are better predictors of long and happy lives than social class, IQ, or even genes. Parallel studies have determined that tight-knit bonds lower stress hormones leading to lower rates of anxiety and increased mood but also less inflammation, a stronger immune system, and lower blood pressure. These factors can, in turn, cause the body to be more adept in fighting illnesses like heart disease and cancer. As the behavioral economist and happiness researcher Arthur Brooks said, “Our connection with others is nourishment for our mind, body, and soul.”

Loneliness Kills

The unfortunate flip-side to this narrative is that the study participants without close personal relationships did not live as healthy, happy, and, in many cases, long a life as those who did maintain close bonds. Waldinger explained that loneliness is “as powerful as smoking or alcoholism” in terms of the damage it can do to your physical and mental health. Not only does it make you more susceptible to depression and anxiety, but it can also cause irregular sleep patterns, increased blood pressure, and a weaker immune system.

Some research shows that a lack of close connections also correlates to an elevated risk of heart disease, stroke, type II diabetes, dementia, anxiety, and addiction, among other conditions. And sadly, adult friendships have been on the decline over the last several decades. Forbes data shows that 40% of adults say that they feel lonely some or all of the time. It’s time to change that.

7 Ways To Strengthen Your Relationships

While relationships can bring great satisfaction to our lives, they are also hard work. It takes consistent effort to form and maintain close relationships with others, which is why we have to carefully choose which bonds are deserving of such an investment. Relationships that are not positively serving you are not worth your time or energy. Just like how good relationships can positively impact your mental and physical health, toxic ones can negatively impact your well-being too. It’s important to be selective in who you allow close to you to protect your heart and channel your energy into the correct relationships.

If you’re looking for ways to strengthen or deepen existing relationships, whether it be platonic, familial, or romantic, these next few tips are for you.

1. Consistently Invest Time

One of the best ways to show someone you want to have a relationship with them is to spend time with them. Especially in our fast-paced world, time is precious. So if you consistently prioritize making plans with someone or talking to them on the phone, it will show the other person how much you care about them.

Research has found that it takes spending 50 hours with someone to transform them from an acquaintance to a casual friend, 90 hours brings the friendship to close friend level, and 200 hours together solidifies a best friendship. If you’re someone who struggles with staying in touch, write in your to-do list or reminder app to reach out to your friends or family. Prioritizing your relationships, even if it’s only a few, is important to your happiness.

2. Spread Positivity

One way to grow a relationship is to foster positivity. This doesn’t always mean saying positive things or complimenting your friend (though it can), but it's about making sure the person feels loved and valued. Send someone a text today that lets them know you’re thinking of them or do a good deed for your spouse to show them how much you care about them.

3. Become Vulnerable

Relationships, especially close ones, are not all about spending time together and spreading positivity – strong relationships are rooted in the ground of intimacy. Getting vulnerable with another person is challenging and can be uncomfortable, but when life gets hard, lean on the people in your life who you trust and love to support you. And then be there for them in return.

Vulnerability often leads to stronger bonds, so who you choose to open up to can determine the direction of that relationship. If, for some reason you find it continually challenging to get vulnerable with a particular friend, take a minute to reflect on why and evaluate if you should step back from that friendship. And remember, no two relationships will be the same because different people fulfill different needs in your life. Some people are great for getting drinks or going to a workout class, and others are in your life to pick you up off the floor when you’ve hit a low point.

4. Create New Memories

Human beings are creatures of habit. We tend to spend time talking about the same things or meeting at the same places. Try changing up your plans or topics of conversation as a little bit of novelty can strengthen a relationship, whether romantic or platonic, and lead you to learn more about one another.

5. Express Gratitude

If you take away anything from this article, I hope it’s gratitude for the close relationships you have in your life. Practicing gratitude is pivotal in making relationships grow. Let your boyfriend, husband, family member, or friend know how appreciative you are for them today and every day.

6. Support Is Key

A lot of being in a relationship is showing up for the other person, both physically and emotionally. Be present when you spend time with them, empathize with them as they’re getting vulnerable, and show (not just tell) them that you’ll be there whenever they need it. If one person in the relationship doesn’t feel supported, trust can begin to dwindle, and the relationship is at risk of crumbling. Show up for the people you care about.

7. Commit To Growing Closer Together

Relationships are two-sided, so you could be following the above six tips conscientiously, but if your friend, boyfriend, etc. is not reciprocating, then the relationship will not get stronger. It’s important to be on the same page as the person you share a bond with. So, have a candid conversation about where you’d like your relationship to be and how you’d like to get it there. 

Closing Thoughts

Let the Harvard Happiness Study be a grounding force for life’s priorities, and the next time you find yourself devoting time and energy to making the most money possible, remember that life’s greatest satisfaction lies in close interpersonal relationships. By no means do you need to turn your focus away from achieving success or reaching your goals, but open your mind to a perspective shift on what brings you true happiness. And if you haven’t been doing so lately, this is your sign to make time for people you love – call your parents, make a standing lunch date with friends, plan a trip with your husband – whatever you do, invest deeply in your relationships. 

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