What do the happiest people on earth have in common? Recently, researchers analyzed the common characteristics of the people who call themselves very, very happy with their lives, and who tend to live long. Here is what they found:
Surprised? Not success. Not money. Not status in society. Not high intelligence. Not even a satisfying, well-paying job.
Research has found that it was strong personal and social relationships that made people happy. And this is true all throughout your life. A study of 1600 Harvard undergraduates and another study that followed a group of men all through their lives until they were eighty, yielded the same results: people were happiest when they had loving relationships, both inside the family and outside, and when they spent time with their loved ones. The study found that “the capacity to love and be loved was the single strength most clearly associated with subjective well-being at age eighty.” In short, socializing with friends and family, in a small and close-knit group, is the most important key to happiness and long life.
Howard Friedman, who conducted an eight-decade study on the subject of happiness and longevity, gives his most important finding thus: “…connecting with and helping others is more important than obsessing over a rigorous exercise program.” Note that it is not being helped or loved by others that led to happiness and long life; it was helping others. In fact, being helped by others all through your life had a detrimental effect on happiness. It made people be at the receiving end, and made them dependent on others. The joy on the face of the people you help make you contented and joyful yourself.
The study also found that “those who worked the hardest lived the longest.” This might come as a surprise to most people who are advised to avoid stress, take it easy and slow down. Though it is true that one should not be stressed out and rushed all the time, if you want to live a long, happy life, research shows that you have to be engaged in work that makes you busy and fully involved. The study concluded: “Those who stayed very involved in meaningful careers and worked the hardest lived the longest.” However, note that doing anything under the sun is not the secret to happiness. It is doing things that you are good at, and you are interested in, that makes you happy.
The happiest people on earth have had a happy, warm, and stable childhood. George Valliant in ‘Triumphs of Experience’, which recorded the findings of the study noted that “warmth of childhood environment” was a very important predictor of contentment, happiness and even a long life. This also means that parental divorce can mean permanent damage to children. According to the study, “the single strongest predictor of early death in adulthood is parental divorce during childhood.” Children from divorced families, the study found, died five years earlier on average than children from intact families. It was parental divorce, not parental death that was the risk. It was found that parental divorce more often than not pushes children into smoking, heavy drinking, lower level of education, lower career achievements and eventually, a higher chance of divorce in their own lives. We cannot change our own childhoods, but this is something to keep in mind if you are raising children.
Karl Pillemer of Cornell University, who interviewed nearly 1500 people age 70 to 100+ for his book “30 Lessons for Living: Tried and True Advice from the Wisest Americans,” gives this lesson about being happy and contented in life : “Do not stay in a job you dislike.” This means that if going to work every day is a burdensome task for you that you don’t look forward to, and there is no chance of things changing for the better in the future, get out as fast as you can.” Pillemer concluded: “spending years in a job you dislike is a recipe for regret and a tragic mistake.” However, if your job gives you benefits such as a comfortable income and a desirable social status, and if you have no chance of getting a job that you truly like, it will be a mistake to leave your current job. Practical considerations such as income should be a factor if you decide to leave your job.
The secret of happiness is giving, not receiving. However, if you give yourself too much, to the point of being a martyr, the opposite effect results. Studies show that people who habitually are selfless and giving, end up feeling manipulated and overloaded. This is true of the workplace and family life. The key is to maintain a balance. According to researchers, the happiest people volunteer for causes just two hours a week consistently. This counts to about 100 hours per year. This ‘chunking’ of your giving and volunteering ensures that you do not overdo it, and that you have enough time and energy for personal and family life and goals. It is also important to not give up things that are very important to you, be it material possessions or time and energy, even for the sake of charity or helping others.
University of California researcher, Professor Robert Emmons, who has been studying gratitude for more than a decade, found that people who feel grateful for things that most people take for granted, such as a lovely sunset, or just being alive, are 25% happier than those who have no habit of being thankful. This is a finding that is corroborated by others researchers. In their study of gratitude, researchers at the University of Miami found that people who consciously thought of their blessings felt better about their lives. They even exercised more, and made fewer visits to the hospital, than those who tended to take things for granted.
Happy people have enough money to cover their necessities, and they perceive that they do. The latter is important. It is not enough to have money, but you should also believe that you have enough money. It is also important not to be in debt. Research on married couples has showed that those who had debt had more marital conflict and much unhappiness in their lives, and a survey of British households found that those with higher levels of debt had lower contentment. How you spend money is also important. Those who spend money on rich experiences such as travelling, were happier than those who bought expensive cars or bigger houses.
What are your own perceptions about the secrets of long life and happiness?