In the last few years, we’ve seen a surge of happiness researchers, classes, studies, statistics, authors, books, blogs, and articles. While it seems that we as a country have become obsessed with the search for happiness, perhaps happiness shouldn’t be the only thing we’re after…

While the search for happiness is a self-centered journey, the search for meaning is enduring and disconnected from our temporary, fleeting emotions. In the first line of Emily Esfahani Smith’s fascinating article for The Atlantic, “There is More To Happiness than Being Happy,” she quotes Viktor Frankl:

It is the very pursuit of happiness that thwarts happiness.”

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The Pursuit of Happiness

In one of the most extensive studies on happiness, researchers tracker 268 Harvard sophomores beginning in the heart of the Great Depression. (Interesting fact: Among the original group was President John F. Kennedy.) Though at the time the study included Harvard’s male-only population, the 1938 study expanded to include wives, an inner city population, and more than 1,300 children of the original participants.

Robert Waldinger–the director of this study, psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital, and professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School–explains what his biggest take-away is from the study:

The surprising finding is that our relationships and how happy we are in our relationships has a powerful influence on our health,” said “Taking care of your body is important, but tending to your relationships is a form of self-care too. That, I think, is the revelation.”

The Importance of Relationships

Furthermore, the study revealed that “close relationships, more than money or fame, are what keep people happy throughout their lives.” Relationships with family, friends, and community do, indeed, protect people from “life’s discontents, help to delay mental and physical decline, and are better predictors of long and happy lives than social class, IQ, or even genes.”

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In fact, people’s level of satisfaction with their relationships determined the following:

  • At age 50, relationship satisfaction was a better predictor of physical health than cholesterol levels.
  • In their 80’s, those with happy marriages reported positive moods even on days when they experienced more physical pain (while those who had unhappy marriages felt both more emotional and more physical pain.)
  • Those with a strong social community experienced less mental deterioration.
  • Those with meaningful, warm relationships lived longer and happier lives.

Waldinger warns, “Loneliness kills. It’s as powerful as smoking or alcoholism.”

Also interesting to note: your relationship doesn’t have to be free from conflict, you just need to feel that you can absolutely count on your partner when times are tough.

With the cultivation of healthy relationships establishing such an irrefutable correlation with longer life and happiness, we must first examine how relationships flourish. Continue onto Part Two of this series to see why the search for happiness alone simply isn’t enough.