What Makes Us Happy: A 76-Year Study

· November 2, 2017

In 1938, Harvard University (USA) began a project called “The Study of Adult Development“. Its primary goal was to determine what really makes us happy. The study is still going, and it is one of the most complete in its field.

The study was initially carried out with the collaboration of 700 young men. Some of them enjoyed a comfortable social status, while some of them were lower-class Bostonians. The researchers followed them throughout their lives to evaluate their search for happiness and what it looked like when they found it.

“The grand essentials of life are: something to do, someone to love, and something to hope for”

Thomas Chalmers

Currently, the study involves more than 1,000 men and women, some of whom are the children of the first generation of volunteers. The current director of the study is psychiatrist Robert Waldinger, who is also a Zen Master.


Based on conclusions drawn from the 76 years of the study, Professor Waldinger offered an outline of what could be called “a good life”. The study shows us what really makes people (or at least the majority of people) happy. Let’s talk about some of the findings.

Quality relationships make us the happiest

One of the most important conclusions drawn from the study about adult development is that people feel truly happy when they have quality human relationships. “What we found is that in the case of people who are most satisfied in their relationships and most connected to others, their body and their mind stay healthy for longer”, said Waldinger.

what makes us happy

In terms of defining what constitutes a high-quality relationship, the professor indicated that it’s a relationship you can trust in and that allows you to be yourself. In other words, you don’t feel judged and you know that you can count on the other person in almost any situation. This type of connection can be with a romantic partner, family, or friends.

Money and fame are smoke screens

On several occasions, the study has given questionnaires about the concept of happiness. Participants in the study, as well as non-participants, took the questionnaire. The survey asks what would make them happy. 80% of respondents said that they would be happy if they had more money, and 50% were sure that fame would make them happy.  Upon analyzing the results after economic improvement or social successes in the lives of the respondents, researchers saw that the assumptions respondents made when answering the questionnaire were not true.

what makes us happy

Everything seems to indicate that money and fame act like some kind of smoke screen in our mind. We might conclude that those who think this way can’t admit that what they are really looking for is approval, respect, and company. Without realizing it, they are assuming that money and fame will lead to more meaningful connections with others.

That means that we subconsciously believe that if we had more money or fame, we would be more valued by others. That is not true. Fame and money bring new connections, but often they are not sincere. They are not based on true respect for the other person. Many people seek out the rich and famous for the benefits they can gain, not because they feel true affection for them.

If we already have the answer, why aren’t we happier?

The Harvard study has the answer to the question of how to be happy, and the answer is relatively simple and concrete. But that leads to another question: we have the answer, so why are so many people unhappy? Wouldn’t it be enough to invest a little more time and effort in our relationships to live better? And therein lies the problem.

Establishing quality relationships is not that simple. It’s not easy because it requires us to have developed a set of values and virtues that don’t come automatically, served on a silver platter. Building strong relationships requires generosity, kindness, patience, and intimacy.

what makes us happy

In life, the point is not to find “special people” we can form wonderful bonds with. The point is that we should be wonderful in our relationships. That is the base of a quality connection.

The bottom line of the 76-year Harvard study is very simple: we are all looking to be loved. This would be synonymous with happiness. Nevertheless, we often are unable to build authentic and loving relationships because we ourselves haven’t developed the ability to give love.