What really makes a happy and healthy life


People who are well connected to family, friends and their community are happier, healthier and live longer.

Photo credit: Samuel Muigai | Nation Media Group

Ask most young people about their plans for a long and happy life, and they’ll talk about becoming rich or famous.

But that idea assumes that wealthy and famous people are happy and healthy. Which many aren’t, though few will admit it.

The only way to find out what really makes a difference is to follow people’s lives and watch for what actually creates happiness and health. Or not. That was done in the longest study of adult life ever made. Some 724 men were followed all their lives, starting in 1938 when they were all teenagers, all the way into old age. About 60 of the original 724 men are still alive and participating in the study.

Some came from poor neighbourhoods, others from wealthy families. Over the years, the researchers collected all kinds of information about their lives, their health and their mental and emotional wellbeing.

They were interviewed regularly, their medical histories were followed, blood tested and brains scanned. Their parents, wives and children were interviewed. They were videoed talking with their wives about their deepest concerns. Eventually their wives and children were themselves included in the study.

They grew up to became factory workers, lawyers, bricklayers and doctors. Some became alcoholics. Some became mentally ill. Some climbed the social ladder and some fell down it. One of them, John F. Kennedy, became President of the United States.

So, what has the study shown? Well, above all, wealth and fame doesn’t lead to health or happiness. What does are good relationships.

People who are well connected to family, friends and their community are happier, healthier and live longer. While people with poor relationships are less happy, less healthy and live shorter lives.

It’s not about the number of friends you have, or whether you’re married or not. What matters is the quality of your relationships. Because high-conflict marriages, for example, are very bad for your health, sometimes even worse than getting divorced. While living in the midst of good, warm relationships is protective. So the people who were the most satisfied in their relationships at age 50 went on to be the healthiest at age 80. And those 80 year olds who were still in secure and happy relationships had the sharpest memories. While those who were in poor relationships experienced earlier memory loss.

Like most people today, many of the participants in the study had started out aiming for wealth and fame. But those who were happiest, healthiest and lived the longest, were the ones who’d successfully built good relationships with family, friends, and their community.

What might that look like for you?

It might mean reducing your screen time and increasing your people time. Or doing something new with your spouse. Or reaching out to that family member who you haven’t spoken to in years. Because family feuds and holding grudges takes a terrible toll on people.

While good relationships lead to a long and happy life.