February 9, 2023

Is there a secret to being happy in life? Harvard has the answer

Read Time:7 Minute, 5 Second


(CNN Spanish) – A Harvard study, begun in the late 1930s – and still ongoing – yielded impressive results on the factors that contribute to a happy life. And the key is in relationships. The office is open, welcome!

You can listen to this episode on Spotify or your favorite podcast platform, or read the transcript below.


Hello, welcome to this new episode of In consultation with Dr. Elmer Huerta, your favorite health podcast on CNN en Español. Dr. Huerta greets you, I hope you are well.

In today’s episode we are going to see what scientific research says about one of the most frequent concerns that human beings have: what can I do in my life to be happy? How do I get happiness?

How to be happy? Harvard studies it since the late 1930s

We are going to describe the study with the most scientific rigor and the most important that has been done so far on this topic: the Harvard University Adult Development Studyan investigation that has just completed 85 years of monitoring its participants.

Let’s go back in time: the year is 1938, two years before World War II, and the United States is going through the Great Depression.

At that time, two groups of researchers from Harvard University decided to start separate studies over time in young men to find out how they were doing in their lives.

It is interesting that one of the groups—which constituted the so-called Grant study—was made up of 268 male students from Harvard (at that time there were no women studying at that institution).

The second—called the Glueck study—was made up of 456 male adolescents from very poor and marginal neighborhoods in the city of Boston, many of them at risk of falling into criminal activities.

The fundamental idea and value of both studies is that their design involved following study participants over time, visiting and interviewing them every year of their lives, not just to assess their physical health through a complete medical examination—including laboratory tests. of blood or x-rays—, but also to find out various aspects of your life, for example:

  • how they lived
  • If they completed their studies,
  • What did they do,
  • If they were alone
  • If they were married, if they had children,
  • If they had committed a crime,
  • What kind of job did they have, etc.

As a curious fact, one of the initial study participants was John F Kennedy, who later became president of the United States.

Has it been sustained over time?

Over time, the study—which had an astonishing 84% participation—was expanded to include 1,300 children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren of the original participants, including women.

The idea was the same: follow them through time to see how they were doing in life.

As of 2017, only 19 of the 268 Harvard students the study began with were alive, all of them older than 90.

It is not hard to see that the study generated over the years an enormous amount of data from the participants, which has the immense value of having been obtained fresh each year.

This point is important, since similar studies are often carried out, but they have a fundamental problem: participants are asked to recall details of their past life, a method that research has revealed to be unreliable, since the memory changes over the years and memories often become blurred or mixed with fantasy.

Hence the value of the Harvard studies: they are prospective, that is, fresh data is obtained over time, as opposed to retrospective studies, which are based on memories.

What the study revealed

The study revealed that the participants became all kinds of people: teachers, doctors, engineers, employees, businessmen, etc.

Many succeeded in their careers and their businesses, others failed, others went unnoticed by most of society, many made fortunes, and many others led more modest lives.

With this amount of information, the Harvard researchers decided to start collecting the data for the study, and for that they asked themselves a fundamental question: what factors or characteristics of the participants when they reached the age of 50 could predict or determine a state of happiness? or happy with life when you reach 80 years?

In other words, what do you need to have at 50 to be happy at 80? What is important to have at 50, a profession, stable job, fame, fortune, property, a happy marriage, friendships, travel , healthy cholesterol levels, daily exercise…?

The secret to being happy, according to a Harvard study

The final result of the study is surprising, but a lot of common sense.

It’s not just cholesterol, it’s not just having good general health, it’s not just having money, a brilliant career, cars, property, or luxuries.

The most important factor for a person in their 80s to perceive that they are happy is having, at age 50, a circle of friends and social relationships that were preserved and cultivated throughout life.

Similarly, having a satisfying marital relationship had an enormous protective effect on the mental health of partners in old age.

Happiness in marriage and mental health

In this regard, a study published in 2010 with data from the original study showed that people who had happy marriages at age 80 reported that their happy mood did not diminish, even on days when they had physical pain from a health problem.

Conversely, people who reported having unhappy marriages reported feeling greater emotional and physical pain.

In another studypublished in 2015, 81 elderly heterosexual couples were interviewed two and a half years apart to find out if attachment to a partner had any influence on their physical and mental health.

The results indicated that members of couples who felt secure in their marriage had higher marital satisfaction, fewer depressive symptoms, better mood, and less frequent marital conflict.

Surprisingly, feeling more secure in marriage was a factor that predicted better memory in women two and a half years later.

The authors point out that it’s not like marriage should be happy and rosy all the time, either. What they indicate is that, despite the normal disagreements of any marriage, the security of one another in marriage is the fundamental element.

The negative effects of loneliness

The finding that more than fame, fortune and material belongings, what really matters to be happy in mature years is the quality of interpersonal relationships that are cultivated throughout life reinforces a known scientific fact.

Loneliness is a very negative element for physical and mental health, it is capable of increasing physical and emotional pain and, through the sleep disorders it causes, it can decrease the activity of the immune system and memory.

Loneliness causes twice the damage to health than obesity, and increases the risk of death in 26%.

Psychiatrist George Vaillant, who led the Harvard study from 1972 to 2004, listed in his book “Aging Well” the six factors that predicted healthy aging for the Harvard men:

  • Physical activity,
  • Healthy weight,
  • Take care of general health,
  • Do not abuse alcohol and tobacco,
  • Have mature mechanisms to cope with the ups and downs of life
  • And cultivate a stable marriage.

Dr. Vaillant said that the more of these six factors people had, the greater the chances that they would have a longer and happier life.

In short, I don’t know how old you are listening to this episode.

Are you very young and are you starting your life? Are you already a middle-aged adult very concerned about building your future? Are you already an older adult wanting to reap the fruits of your work?

No matter how old you are, I hope that the findings of this important research will make you reflect and consider strengthening the bonds of friendship and family that you may have neglected over the years.

Well, this is all for today, happy new year and I’ll see you in the next episode. Bye.

Do you have questions for Dr. Huerta?

Send me your questions on Twitter, we will try to answer them in our next episodes. you can find me at @DrHuerta.

If you find this podcast useful, be sure to subscribe to get the latest episode on your account. Help others find it by rating and reviewing it on their favorite podcast app.

And for the most up-to-date information, you can always go to CNNEspanol.com. Thanks for your attention.





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