08/28/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

What Really Makes Us Happy And Healthy

A few days ago I came across this fantastic article on happiness by Joshua Wolf Shenk (a college classmate of mine, coincidentally) in The Atlantic Monthly on the Grant Study, the longest longitudinal study of happiness ever conducted.

Its findings over its 70-year span are revelatory, beautiful, sobering, instructive, encouraging and altogether amazing. As it turns out, some of the participants in the study ended up becoming pretty prominent: two US senators, the journalist Ben Bradlee, and a certain future President of the United States, John F. Kennedy.

The study was conducted on men only, and Harvard men at that, so it doesn't exactly start out with normal. But the conclusions are powerful. One of them is that the most salient predictor of happiness is good relationships -- once basic needs are fulfilled, wealth doesn't figure quite so prominently. Education, on the other hand, does play a big role, as does adaptability.

When it comes to health, the findings on a control group of less privileged youth were revealing. A comparison of the two groups showed that long-term health has a lot to do with how much you drink and smoke (surprise) and much less to do with your wealth or education.

There are dozens of fascinating findings discussed in the article, so I urge you to print it out for yourself and for all your kids. It's rare that one piece can capture the full sweep of human life -- growing up, marriage, career, achievement, parenthood, war, trauma, joy, failure, addiction, recovery, depression, success and decline -- like this.

Here are some excerpts:

"Is there a formula--some mix of love, work, and psychological adaptation--for a good life? For 72 years, researchers at Harvard have been examining this question, following 268 men who entered college in the late 1930s through war, career, marriage and divorce, parenthood and grandparenthood, and old age. Here, for the first time, a journalist gains access to the archive of one of the most comprehensive longitudinal studies in history. Its contents, as much literature as science, offer profound insight into the human condition--and into the brilliant, complex mind of the study's longtime director, George Vaillant."

"Last fall, I spent about a month in the file room of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, hoping to learn the secrets of the good life. The project is one of the longest-running--and probably the most exhaustive--longitudinal studies of mental and physical well-being in history. Begun in 1937 as a study of healthy, well-adjusted Harvard sophomores (all male), it has followed its subjects for more than 70 years.

From their days of bull sessions in Cambridge to their active duty in World War II, through marriages and divorces, professional advancement and collapse--and now well into retirement--the men have submitted to regular medical exams, taken psychological tests, returned questionnaires, and sat for interviews. The files holding the data are as thick as unabridged dictionaries."

Read the rest here.

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