We see an endless stream of one-off studies in the news.
This makes you healthy. Wait, no, it doesn’t. Oh hold on, yes, it does. Um, no, no it doesn’t…
Unless we can somehow put them all into perspective, these little dribs and drabs of knowledge really aren’t much more than trivia.
What happens when you study entire lives? When you check in on big groups of people again and again for decades?
What do you learn about what makes a good life? About what makes us all happy? What makes us thrive? What leads to success? And what doesn’t?
This isn’t just a thought experiment.
So when we look at these studies, what life lessons can we learn to make sure our own lives are more fulfilling, happy and successful?
When asked to succinctly summarize his findings, what did George Valliant, who shepherded the Grant Study, say?
“Happiness is love. Full Stop.”
The seventy-five years and twenty million dollars expended on the Grant Study points, at least to me, to a straightforward five-word conclusion: “Happiness is love. Full stop.” Virgil, of course, needed only three words to say the same thing, and he said them a very long time ago— Omnia vincit amor, love conquers all— but unfortunately he had no data to back them up.
The Terman Study agrees — having a large social network and nurturing relationships adds years to your life.
…having a large social network, engaging in physical activities that naturally draw you in, giving back to your community, enjoying and thriving in your career, and nurturing a healthy marriage or close friendships can do more than add many years to your life. Together, they represent the living with purpose that comes from working hard, reaching out to others, and bouncing back from difficult times. How fascinating to understand that those individuals who became involved with others in a consequential life would be improving their health as an unanticipated bonus.
That’s almost too sweet. Like saccharin. It’s easy to hear this and think, “Hey, love isn’t all you need. You need money too.”
But what’s fascinating is the research showed just how connected the two are. Those with warm relationships made more money.
The fifty-eight men with the best scores for warm relationships were three times more likely to be in Who’s Who, and their maximum income— between the ages of fifty-five and sixty, and in 2009 dollars— was an average of $ 243,000 a year. In contrast, the thirty-one men with the worst scores for relationships earned an average maximum salary of $ 102,000 a year.
What question can predict whether you’ll be alive and happy at 80?
“Is there someone in your life whom you would feel comfortable phoning at four in the morning to tell your troubles to?”
Is there someone in your life whom you would feel comfortable phoning at four in the morning to tell your troubles to? If your answer is yes, you will likely live longer than someone whose answer is no. For George Vaillant, the Harvard psychiatrist who discovered this fact, the master strength is the capacity to be loved.
I guess it’s not surprising that having lots of friends to help you leads to a long, successful life.
But the Terman Study found that actually wasn’t the case. Getting help from friends didn’t make you thrive.
Giving help to friends is what led to a long life.
We figured that if a Terman participant sincerely felt that he or she had friends and relatives to count on when having a hard time then that person would be healthier. Those who felt very loved and cared for, we predicted, would live the longest. Surprise: our prediction was wrong… Beyond social network size, the clearest benefit of social relationships came from helping others. Those who helped their friends and neighbors, advising and caring for others, tended to live to old age.
Vaillant was asked, “What have you learned from the Grant Study men?” Vaillant’s response?
“That the only thing that really matters in life are your relationships to other people.”
(For more on how to improve your relationships, click here.)
So we know what’s most important. But how should we live our lives day to day? Ambitious striving? Take it easy? What did the studies show?
The more successful you are, the longer you live. Probably not too shocking, right?
But what might be more of a surprise is people with low motivation actually die younger.
Those who were the most successful were the ones least likely to die at any given age. Ambition was not a problem and taking it easy was not healthy. In fact, those men who were carefree, undependable, and unambitious in childhood and very unsuccessful in their careers had a whopping increase in their mortality risk.
People who are unpressured don’t thrive. The Terman Study found those who work hard are healthier and happier.
Never found your dream job? It doesn’t matter. What matters is striving toward goals.
We did not find that precisely living out your dreams matters much for your health… It was not the happiest or the most relaxed older participants who lived the longest. It was those who were most engaged in pursuing their goals.
Don’t take it easy, be ambitious, always learning… that’s a lot to ask. So what type of person does that?
In fact a number of longitudinal studies agree on the quality most connected to a long and successful life: conscientiousness.
Who lived the longest in the Terman Study? The conscientious people.
Conscientiousness, which was the best predictor of longevity when measured in childhood, also turned out to be the best personality predictor of long life when measured in adulthood.
In reviewing the Grant Study, Valliant specifically called out the Terman study agreeing that conscientiousness was key.
(For the easiest way to increase good qualities like conscientiousness, click here.)
Okay, so you know what to do. But what attitude should you take toward life?
So far, everything’s been pretty clear. Now things get a little more tricky.
As a general rule, optimism increases life satisfaction.
Sophisticates may scorn optimists— consider the scorn Voltaire heaped upon Dr. Pangloss— but the Grant Study suggests that Martin Seligman’s research is right on target. Optimism is far more often a blessing than a curse.
But optimism didn’t increase lifespan. Huh? The Terman study showed people who are happy and positive aren’t necessarily healthy.
When we looked across the decades at the lives of Paul, Emma, and the other Terman children to see who lived the longest, we found one of the biggest bombshells of our entire project: cheerful and optimistic children were less likely to live to an old age than their more staid and sober counterparts!
Happy people assume things will be okay — even when they won’t. Sometimes you need to face reality and address it.
The Grant Study confirms that being neurotic reduces life satisfaction. However, worrying can extend your life.
Unlike catastrophizing, moderate worrying often conferred real benefits to health. James, tactful and sensitive, was something of a worrier throughout his life. But it turned out that his concerns prompted him to take better care of his health, especially after the death of his wife.
So optimism will make you happier but a little worrying can add years to your life. It’s a balance.
That said, in general what it takes to live a happy life and long life overlap nicely.
And the happiest people didn’t run down a checklist — they lived a lifestyle where these were organic and natural habits.
(For more on increasing happiness, click here.)
So didn’t these lifelong studies show anything that might be controversial? Absolutely. Let’s check it out.
So far, much of the advice has been pretty heartening: love and be loved, strive, work hard, be optimistic.
But there are results that will make some people sad because they deal with things we cannot change — like the vital importance of a warm childhood.
Time and time again in the Grant Study those who came from loving homes did much better than the less fortunate.
So, while an isolated trauma or a bad relationship need not in itself condition adult psychopathology, the Harvard Study of Adult Development makes clear that global disruptions of childhood have strong predictive power, none of it good. Children who fail to learn basic love and trust at home are handicapped later in mastering the assertiveness, initiative, and autonomy that are the foundation of successful adulthood.
Happiness at the end of your life? It’s tied to happiness at the beginning:
Vaillant concludes that a loving childhood is one of the best predictors of mid and late-life riches: “We found that contentment in the late seventies was not even suggestively associated with parental social class or even the man’s own income. What it was significantly associated with was warmth of childhood environment, and it was very significantly associated with a man’s closeness to his father.”
The Terman Study realized that “Parental divorce during childhood was the single strongest social predictor of early death.”
The long-term health effects of parental divorce were often devastating— it was indeed a risky circumstance that changed the pathways of many of the young Terman participants. Children from divorced families died almost five years earlier on average than children from intact families. Parental divorce, not parental death, was the risk.
This can be depressing. We can’t go back and change our childhood. But the story does not end there.
What both studies also show is that people can change, they can overcome and things missing in childhood can be gained later.
The Grant Study showed that happy marriages can repair the damage of difficult childhoods.
The unconscientious who challenged themselves grew and matured to be like the naturally conscientious.
It was those who were conscientious as children and who remained highly persistent and prudent as adults who lived the longest. Nevertheless, those who started out unconscientious but entered positions requiring maturity and growth, and who increased their levels of prudence and persistence, were able to close much of the gap.
Across the board, the studies showed that what goes right in your life is far more important than what goes wrong.
(For more on research that gives hope, click here.)
So what do all these lessons tell us?
Four life lessons that we should all keep in mind:
I could have just written something like “Love, Strive, Believe and Hope“, I guess.
So if you’re needing the bumper sticker version of this, fine, go ahead: “Love, Strive, Believe and Hope.” There. Done.
And when someone says “That’s corny” you can scream “HEY, IT’S SCIENCE!” — and as far as I’m concerned, you win.
The best way to pay respect to those who came before us is to learn from them.
Sometimes we feel cheated by life, now’s the chance to cheat at life. This is the closest thing we have to the answers to the test.
So game the system. Learn from the life stories of others and make sure your life story has a happy ending.
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