Living a long and happy life seems to correlate more directly with the value of our relationships than our accumulated wealth. Though this may seem obvious, it’s not so frequently practiced.
In a famous longitudinal study tracking the health of 268 Harvard sophomores beginning in 1938, scientists hoped to learn the clues leading to healthy and happy lives. What they discovered was that close relationships, more than money or fame, are what keep people happy throughout their lives. These strong ties delay people from physical and mental decline and are better predictors of long and happy lives than social class, IQ, or even one’s genes. This finding was proven across the board with both the Harvard participants as well as those in the inner-city.
A study of 50 ninety-five-year-olds were asked if they could live their lives over again what would they do differently. The most common responses were: 1) They would reflect more. 2) They would take more risks and chances. 3) They would have left a legacy, something that would last beyond their own lifetime.
As we age, we should seek more meaning rather than merely happiness. This would mean shifting from primarily satisfying our needs and desires to giving back and leaving a legacy. Moving from what David Brooks in his book The Second Mountain terms “resume virtues” to “eulogy virtues.” It’s not about what you’ve achieved in your working life, but about the people you’ve touched along the way. It’s about your character rather than your accomplishments.
It turns out that happiness levels are positively correlated with whether people see their lives as meaningful, according to a survey of 400 American adults by Roy Baumeister and his colleagues. Our relationships are related to both how happy we are as well as how meaningful we see our lives. Feeling more connected to others improved both happiness and meaning.
Ultimately, the researchers identified five major differences between a happy life and a meaningful one.
- Happy people satisfy their needs and wants, but this is generally irrelevant to a meaningful life. While health, wealth, and ease in life were all related to happiness, but not with meaning.
- While happiness is focused on the present, which is more fleeting, meaningfulness requires thinking more about the past, present, and future—and the relationship between them.
- Happiness is derived by what other people give to you, while meaningfulness is more about what you give to others. And though spending time with friends was linked to happiness more than meaning, spending time with loved ones (e.g., taking care of your children or elderly parents) was linked to meaning, but not necessarily happiness.
- Meaningfulness in life involves stress and challenges to be overcome. High levels of worry and anxiety were linked to higher meaningfulness and lower happiness. It could be that while challenging oneself through obstacles may not lead to happiness, it has the potential to bring about longer-term meaningfulness.
- Self-expression is important for meaning, but not necessarily happiness. I can attest to this as I’ve written short fiction and feel that it is important and meaningful to me, even though I derive little happiness from this creative expression.
Clearly striving for happiness is important, but it shouldn’t be the only pursuit to live a long and healthy life. As with many things, it’s often about delayed gratification. There can be great satisfaction and fulfillment in working hard at something, making steady progress, and ultimately finding meaning. And remember to value relationships over things because when you’re 95, you’ll be glad you did.