This weekend, while walking with my family through the hills of Thalwil, Switzerland, admiring Lake Zurich below us and in the distance the snow capped Alps, I started thinking about the topic of happiness. How do you know whether you are really happy? Is it the money? Your health? Your family? Your Career? Your Children? What are the secrets to happiness?
To answer the happiness question and to discover the secrets to a good life, for 70+ years researchers at Harvard University followed 268 men who entered their university starting in 1937.
All the subjects submitted to regular medical exams, psychological tests, questionnaires, and interviews. Among the participants were four USA Senate candidates, a presidential cabinet member, a USA president (John F. Kennedy whose files are sealed until 2040), journalist Ben Bradlee, and the author Norman Mailer.
By the time the men had entered their retirement, George Valiant, the Harvard University study long time director, identified seven major factors that predict healthy aging, both physical and psychological. The list included mature adaptation (responding to challenges), education, stable marriage, not smoking, not abusing alcohol, some exercise, and healthy weight.
Factors that did not matter included cholesterol levels at age 50 and childhood temperament. Regular exercise in college predicted late life mental health better than it did physical health. Depression was a major drain on physical health and depressed individuals had a shorter life. Pessimists suffered physically in comparison to optimists. Social aptitude, not intellectual brilliance or parental social class leads were important success indicators.
"Positive emotions make us more vulnerable than negative ones. One reason is that they're future oriented. Fear and sadness have immediate payoffs - protecting us from attack or attracting resources at times of distress. Gratitude and joy, over time, will yield better health and deeper connections - but in the short term actually put us at risk. That's because, while negative emotions tend to be insulating, positive emotions expose us to the common elements of rejection and heartbreak." (1)
The most critical factor to happiness and health is the "powerful correlation between the warmth of your relationships and your health and happiness in old age. The 58 men who scored highest on measurements of "warm relationships" earned an average of $141,000 a year more at their peak salaries (usually between ages 55 and 60) than the 31 men who scored lowest; the former were also three times more likely to have achieved professional success worthy of inclusion in Who's Who." (2)
Embedded in the longitudinal Harvard research are three key elements to happiness:
- "Warm Relationships" - Beyond the immediate family, conscientiously create circles of influence. The circles of influence are multi-layer group of individuals that each of us must find. The inner circle would consist of family members, followed by life and career mentors, close friends, and eventually just acquaintances. If you do have enemies, would suggest they are also part of your circle of influence.
- Separate Technology from Human Interaction - Life is full of distractions. At public venues such as concerts, restaurants, relaxing in the park, you will often see individuals looking at their mobile phone almost on a constant basis. Happy and healthy people socially interact with other individuals in their circle of influence. Focus on the moment in front of you. Engage in a live conversation. Really listen to the music both at a concert and from nature. New ideas, concepts are always around us if you really listen. Beyond social media, take the time to research topics that charge up both your personal life and your career.
- Keep a positive mental attitude - A positive mental attitude is your most important barometer to a healthy and happy life. Within you are the baseline characteristics to overcome the challenges of life. Take prevention steps by listening to the clues of any problem that typically builds over time. The clues will alert you and more importantly give you insight on potential solutions. Rely on the influence circles as a support mechanism to overcome the problem at hand. Finally, recall from the Harvard study what happens to the individuals that are pessimists or depressed.
There is no magic formula to happiness and a healthy life. Both are achieved by measured steps and positive thoughts that are incremental to everyday living. The inspiring beauty of the Swiss countryside was a great reminder that this is a special moment in my life. Stop, put down that smartphone, look up and engage with the individuals that are with you. Absorb quietly the world as it is moving around you. Your life journey has an expiration date. Make every single minute count by making sure it is being lived to the fullest. Live a long, prosperous, healthy, and happy life.