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85-Year Harvard Study Reveals the Single Greatest Predictor of Happiness (It’s Not What You Think)

 Written by 

Julien Raby

 Last updated on 

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Decades of research from Harvard University have uncovered the secret to a fulfilling life, and it’s not fame, wealth, or career success. 

The Harvard Study of Adult Development, one of the most comprehensive longitudinal studies ever conducted, asserts that nurturing our connections with others is not just beneficial but essential.

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This article reveals why relationships are so important and offers practical advice on strengthening them. 

Neglecting your relationships can have serious consequences – but it’s never too late to make positive changes.

Study Background

Since its inception in 1938, the Harvard Study has followed the lives of 724 individuals from various backgrounds, extending over time to include their spouses and over 1,300 offspring. 

The directors of the study, Robert Waldinger and Marc Schulz, have watched participants navigate life’s ups and downs, and their consistent observation is clear: those who maintain good relationships fare significantly better in terms of both mental and physical health. 

“Good relationships lead to health and happiness,” Waldinger and Schulz note, underscoring the necessity of actively caring for our social connections.

Impact of Modern Life on Relationships

In an era where screen time often replaces face-to-face interactions, the study’s findings are particularly salient. 

The average American, as of 2018, spent approximately 11 hours daily on solitary activities like watching TV and browsing the internet—time that eclipses the moments shared with loved ones. 

Waldinger and Schulz highlight a stark comparison: over a 29-year span, Americans are likely to spend only 58 days with close friends, versus 4,851 days engaging with media. 

This imbalance suggests a potential area of improvement for many, pointing towards a need to prioritize personal interactions over digital consumption.

Practical Advice on Nurturing Relationships

The researchers offer practical steps for enhancing one’s social fitness. 

They suggest starting with a simple exercise: calculate how much time you actually spend with a loved one and consider the emotional quality of these interactions. Are these exchanges fulfilling? Could they be improved? 

The advice doesn’t stop at mere reflection; it extends to actively making time for those who matter most, even if those moments are infrequent but meaningful.

Case Study: Sterling Ainsley

The human cost of neglected relationships is poignantly illustrated through the case of Sterling Ainsley, a pseudonymous participant. Sterling, despite having a family and successful career, experienced profound loneliness, a consequence of his minimal interaction with family and friends. 

His story is a testament to the study’s broader findings: without nurturing, relationships wither, and so too does our well-being. His later years, marked by isolation, underscore the essential nature of regular, heartfelt connection with others.

Scientific Insight on Loneliness

Further emphasizing the importance of relationships, other studies echo Harvard’s conclusions. 

Research shows that loneliness not only impairs mental health but also has tangible effects on physical health, such as increased susceptibility to disease and premature death. 

Globally, loneliness is recognized as a significant health epidemic, with countries like the UK establishing initiatives specifically to address this growing concern.


The evidence is overwhelming: investing in our relationships is investing in our health and happiness. 

The Harvard Study of Adult Development serves as both a reminder and a call to action. As Waldinger and Schulz advocate, even small, consistent efforts to connect with others can yield substantial benefits across the lifespan. 

It is never too late to reach out, to rebuild old bridges, or to forge new ones. In doing so, we enhance not only our own lives but also those of our communities, crafting a healthier, happier society for generations to come.


Julien Raby is the owner of BoxLife. He owns a bachelor in literature and a certificate in marketing from Concordia. He's Crossfit Level 1 certified and has been involved in Crossfit since 2010. In 2023 he finally made it to Crossfit Open Quarterfinals for the first time. LinkedIn Instagram Facebook

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