What Makes a Good Life, According to Science

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What if you could follow a group of people through their entire lives to see how their choices impact their well-being and quality of life? Decades ago, researchers from Harvard University set out to do exactly that. Four directors and 75 years later, the Harvard Study of Adult Development managed to pull through as the longest running study of its kind. The current study director, psychiatrist Robert Waldinger, presented their findings at a TEDx event in 2015.

Waldinger pointed out that successful lifetime studies are rare because they require such long-term funding and multiple generations of researchers (since study subjects may outlive the people studying them). He attributed this particular study’s survival to sheer persistence and dumb luck. Since 1938, it’s followed 724 men – 60 of whom are still alive – and their 2000+ children.

The original study participants were made up of two groups from drastically different backgrounds. One group was comprised of teenagers from the most disadvantaged Boston neighborhoods, where running water was a scarce commodity. The other was a cohort of sophomores from Harvard College. After an initial interview and medical examination, researchers contacted the study participants every two years to gather data, interviewing them and their families, as well as examining their medical records and performing brain scans and blood tests.

Out of the mountains of information being generated by this study (and yes, it’s still ongoing), it became very clear that there was a single factor that could predict someone’s quality of life: the quality of their relationships. Not only did the men who reported having quality relationships feel happier, but they were healthier as well. To learn even more about the implications of this study, check out the full TED talk here: