As women in the modern workforce, we feel considerable pressure to craft a “perfect” life. We’re groomed to desire financial security, career success, high-functioning relationships and - most elusive of all - the idea of “happiness." It’s easy to say “I want to be happy,” but it’s trickier to define exactly what that means or how to achieve it.
Researchers at Harvard University acknowledge the slippery nature of happiness, and chose to embark on a years-long study to get some answers on what it is and how to achieve it. Specifically, they tracked 800 individuals throughout their lives, making note of the decisions, priorities, and connections that inspired long-term happiness.
The Study of Adult Development, led by George Vaillant, monitored three different socioeconomic groups from childhood to old age, gathering eight decades worth of information on what contributed to these individuals’ happiness. In a summary of the study, Business Insider identified 6 factors that result in a happy and fulfilled life.
While the Harvard study largely focused on the impact of tobacco and alcohol abuse on male participants, its conclusions are pretty universal: drinking and smoking is a cause of stress, depression, and lifestyle dysfunction, not just a symptom. For best results, you’ll want to steer clear whenever possible.
Harvard’s study compared the health of workers without a college education to those with a diploma and those with a Harvard-specific diploma. While they identified little difference between the Ivy League-educated participants’ health and that of participants with a less-prestigious college education, they spotted a major distinction between the health of college-educated people and those who didn’t pursue higher education. The takeaway? A college education can lead to a healthier and longer life.
While it’s certainly possible to build a happy adult life after a dysfunctional childhood, those who spent their formative years in loving homes have a happiness advantage. The Harvard researchers concluded that “how much someone was loved as a child predicted their adult income better than knowing what social class they were brought up in.” Even if you had a less-than-ideal childhood, the study emphasizes that “what went right in childhood was much more predictive [of future happiness] than what went wrong.”
After the study’s multi-decade run, the researchers concluded that “it was social aptitude - sometimes called emotional intelligence - not intellectual brilliance or parental social class that leads to a well-adapted old age.” The ability to maintain social connections and to create new ones predicted success more than any other external factors.
The researchers learned that “mature defenses”, or deliberate, well-conceived methods of handling the “painful thoughts and feelings produced by difficult people” have major implications on your overall happiness. While “blaming others, being passive-aggressive, living in denial, acting out and retreating into fantasy” often feel good in the short term, “mature methods of coping like altruism, sublimation, suppression and humor” resulted in longer-lasting positive effects.
“Generativity”, or the act of giving back to one’s community via service or monetary donations, becomes an important element of a happy life – especially as one advances in age. According to the Harvard study, “between [the ages of] 30 and 45, our need for achievement declines and our need for community and affiliation increases.” Essentially, “the best way to selfishly improve your life is to be unselfish and focus on helping those around you.”