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Three things are the secret to real happiness

03-29-16 Category: Emotion, Recovery

Three things are the secret to real happiness

And only one begins with an “S” (and it’s not that). In theory, these secrets seem obtainable enough; in reality, they’re frustratingly elusive.

A study on happiness

Robert Waldinger, the man holding the secrets, is the director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development. His findings stem the data collected over 75 years from two groups of white males. The Grant Study focused on 268 Harvard sophomores. The Glueck Study followed 456 youths, age 12 to 16, who grew up in Boston’s inner city.

Every two years, researchers met with the study subjects. They recorded the quality of the social components of the men’s lives (relationships, jobs, social activities). Every five years, researchers measured the men’s physical health (X-rays, blood and urine tests, echocardiograms). The researchers confirm what John Donne said over 400 years ago: No man is an island.

Secret #1: Close relationships

The happiest and most physically sound subjects enjoyed close relationships. These involved spouses or partners, friends and work colleagues. Conversely, subjects who were not social fared poorly. They reported feeling unhappy with recurring bouts of loneliness. These findings confirm results from a 2014 study on the detrimental health effects of social isolation.

Secret #2: It’s not how many but how good

The second secret to real happiness is hardly revolutionary. According to the study, it’s the quality, not the quantity, of relationships that determines a person’s happiness. The happiest subjects reported having nurturing, quality relationships. The caveat: this pertains more to the older cohort. A 2015 study found that 20-somethings are happier with more relationships, even if they are superficial.

Secret #3: Stability and support

The third leg of a happy life entails stability combined with support. Again, the happy study subjects reported their contentment derived in no small part from the comfort and security of a stable and supportive relationship. Longevity appears to be the key. Couples married 50 years or more who never took time apart or tried trial separations lived longer and had better cognitive functions, such as memory.

Avoid high conflicts

Marriages that devolve into morbid competitions for longevity or are plagued by lack of communication and contempt are dismal, pure and simple. Waldinger terms these relationships “high conflict.” The Harvard study showed that individuals engaged in these wars of attrition are not happy; they’re even unhappier than individuals who live out their golden years alone. On a related note: a 2013 study found contempt to be the number one predictor of divorce.

One in two marriages in America end in divorce. Waldinger does not offer much in the way of advice for staving off divorce, but he does say strong, happy relationships take a cue from leaning in. He says, “But over and over, over these 75 years, our study has shown that the people who fared the best were the people who leaned in to relationships, with family, with friends, with community.”

Sovereign Health Group provides treatment for substance abuse and mental health disorders. Our behavioral health program examines the underlying causes that fuel behavior. We use biopsychosocial, medical and psychiatric evaluations to determine the best course of action for a patient. Contact our 24/7 helpline for more information.

About the author

Darren Fraser is a content writer for Sovereign Health Group. He worked two and half years as reporter and researcher for The Yomiuri Shimbun until they realized he did not read, speak or write Japanese and fired him. Undeterred, he channels his love of research into unearthing stories that provide hope to those dealing with addiction and mental illness. Darren loves the Montreal Canadians hockey club and horror films and would prefer to enjoy these from the comforts of his family’s farm in Quebec. For more information about this media, contact the author at

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