We’re largely in control of how happy and fulfilled we are, according to landmark Harvard research — the longest study on happiness ever conducted, spanning an incredible 80 years and following more than 700 people, starting from adolescence all the way through their golden years. The study found that more than any other factor (including genes and socioeconomic status) the depth of one’s relationships is the single best forecaster of a content, meaningful life. “People with the strongest connections are not only happier, they’re physically healthier and live longer,” reveals Marc Schulz, PhD, Associate Director of the aforementioned Harvard Study of Adult Development. “The relationships we foster allow us to release stress, find pleasure in life, and even help cement our identity and find purpose — it’s quite extraordinary how powerful these connections are and how many functions they serve.”
Perhaps the most inspiring takeaway from this trailblazing study is that it’s never too late to find more joy and reap the benefits of closer ties. “We heard so many stories of people who were lonely in their 70s or 80s, but once they started doing a few things differently — like ending a bad relationship or reaching out to an old friend — they felt so much happier.” Ready to slash stress, get more joy from your most important relationships, and learn the secrets of the happiest people in the world? Just read on for four easy, study-proven strategies to help you lead your best life.
1. Lean in to Challenges
When you’re waiting for the results of an important medical test, you try to put it out of your mind. Though dismissing challenges is a natural defense mechanism, the happiest people face them head-on, reveals Dr. Schulz. That’s in large part because being realistic about obstacles triggers our rational mind to begin problem-solving.
Rather than face challenges alone, allow yourself to reach out for support. “Take stock of your ‘social universe’ and look to people you can talk to,” urges Dr. Schulz. Indeed, the happiest individuals make their obstacles “accessible” to people they trust. “I have relatives who tend to be reluctant to share medical challenges because they ‘don’t want to be a burden’ — but that’s a lost opportunity to deepen their connections.” We buckle under stress when we believe a challenge will overwhelm us. That’s why it’s so important to expand our resources by tapping the wisdom and compassion of others. “We all face difficulties — the key is to lean in to them, knowing that we can overcome them.”
2. Foster Micro Connections
After moving to a new town, you feel lonely and worry that it’s too hard to make new friends. While the Harvard study found having close relationships is strongly correlated with happiness, Dr. Schulz says we shouldn’t underestimate the power of acquaintances to help us feel that uplifting sense of connection.
In fact, one of the fastest ways to alleviate loneliness is to talk to a stranger. “Whether you say ‘hi’ to the bus driver or strike up a conversation with the mailman, minor interactions give us a huge energy boost,” says Dr. Schulz. “These connections remind us of our shared humanity.” Of course, as nourishing as such “weak” ties are, the best thing you can do is bolster your closest ties. And it doesn’t take long: Chatting on the phone just 10 minutes a day is shown to slash loneliness by more than 20 percent, according to a study published in JAMA Psychiatry. In short, connections of any kind — strong, “weak,” and somewhere in between — all boost our health and happiness.
3. Discover the Power of Hope
With inflation rising, you can’t stop thinking the worst about your finances, but holding on to hope is key to happiness, says Schulz. He explains that the Harvard study followed folks from very different walks of life, and those who enjoyed long, meaningful lives did so in large part because they believed in a brighter future.
When you dread the future, challenge yourself to find glimmers of hope. This could be anything from watching your kids or grandkids play to recalling a favorite artwork or biblical passage. Research shows hope is not only associated with better coping skills but it even speeds recovery from illness. In the Harvard study, kids from disadvantaged backgrounds who had a supportive adult, such as a mentor, in their lives, proved more resilient and happier over the long-term, reveals Dr. Schulz. This kind of support is known as “hope modeling" — or simply being inspired by someone. In fact, just reading a biography of someone who overcame the odds will spark hope and light the way to joy in your life.
4. Explore Your Purpose
It’s been a few months since you officially became an empty-nester, and you’re unsure how to start a new chapter. It’s normal to fear transitions — but the great news is finding meaning in life gets easier as we age. Dr. Schulz explains that when we’re younger, we’re focused on ourselves as we strive to succeed, but as we age, the happiest folks aspire to an altruistic purpose.
If you want more purpose, but are unsure how to begin, focus on your values. Ask yourself what fills you up, from mentoring to giving back, urges Dr. Schulz. “One of the most remarkable lessons from the Harvard study is that we tend to get happier as we get older,” he reveals. That’s largely because our sense of purpose expands, transcending our own lives to encompass our community and the larger world. In fact, a recent study showed that people who volunteered just once a month were happier and healthier than those who didn’t. “In middle age and beyond, we think about our legacy, as we ask ourselves, 'How can I help people grow?'” This “other-oriented” perspective leads to greater joy because looking beyond ourselves opens us up to limitless possibilities.
A version of this article originally appeared in our print magazine, First For Women.