Happiness isn’t about things!

Data from the Royal College of Psychiatrists suggests that one in five people in the UK will suffer from depression at some point in their life. Whilst this high prevalence of depression is without a question not due to a single factor, but the result of several complex causes, one cannot help but wonder whether it may be related to us making the wrong life decisions. Do we set the wrong goals?

A recent survey of millennials asking them about their most important life goals suggested that over 80% of respondents considered a major life goal to be getting rich, whilst 50% wanted to become famous. In other words: respondents seemed to think that money and fame can buy happiness. Can it?

Author and journalist Benjamin Wallace conducted a self-test: he sampled a selection of the world’s most expensive products and tested how it would feel like to consume or experience them. His result: 250g of Kobe beef are too rich to eat, his designer jeans went unnoticed, expensive cars also had their technological pitfalls and ultimately, having tested all these exquisite products, he did not feel any better than before. Of course, this anecdotal self-study cannot be taken as a valid scientific experiment and therefore should not be generalised, but perhaps it indicates that ‘getting rich’ should not necessarily be on the top of our priority list as it does not always seem to lead to happiness. But what should we prioritise instead?

This question has been examined by Robert Waldinger and colleagues as part of the Study of Adult Development at Harvard Medical School, the longest longitudinal observation of aging and development. The study recruited a cohort of over 250 Harvard college students from the classes of 1939 to 1944 as well as a cohort of almost 500 youngsters from disadvantaged backgrounds in Boston between the years 1940 and 1945. The researchers assessed each individual extensively at least every other year for their physical and mental health, career enjoyment, retirement experience and marital quality, and continue to do so to the present day. The study is unique in the sense that it is the first one to follow real individuals from varying backgrounds throughout their life, from childhood until old age, and thereby producing insights into the fundamentals of a happy and purposeful life: how do we develop, what is likely to make us fulfilled?

So, what did the researchers find? Is money the key to happiness? Should we all work 70 hour weeks to get the furthest we can with our career? Unsurprisingly, findings suggest: no, we should not. Instead, a few important lessons stood out:

  1. Social connections are really important for our wellbeing.

    The clearest message that evolved from observing the life stories of over 700 individuals is that “good relationships keep us happier and healthier”. The research showed that individuals with strong social connections either to family, friends or community reported greater happiness and physical health, and lived longer than people who were more isolated. Which leads to the second important lesson that…

  2. Loneliness and isolation are toxic.

    The study also showed that the experience of loneliness is very detrimental to our health and wellbeing: people who felt more isolated from others than they wanted to be, indicated feeling less happy and showed a faster cognitive and physical decline, leading to a shorter life.

    Sounds scary! So, does that mean that in order to live a long and fulfilling life, we should all set out to find as many friends and social connections as possible? Not quite! The truth is that…

  3. Quality matters!

    It is not the number of social interactions we experience that promotes our health and happiness, and buffers us against stressors in life – it is the quality of our relationships. In fact, whilst loneliness seems to be associated with greater life dissatisfaction, a marriage that is lacking affection and is instead full of conflicts and disharmony can be just as bad – if not worse – for us. Loving relationships and friendships, on the other hand, can promote our wellbeing and resilience and help us cope with anything that life might throw at us. Interestingly, the researchers observed that good physical health at the age of 80 was not only – as would have been expected – predicted by good physical health at the age of 50, but instead much more by the perceived quality of social connections. But that is not all…

  4. Good relationships can protect our brain.

    Study findings further suggest that the feeling of being in a secure and happy relationship seems to protect our brain functioning and even lead to greater memory capacity at older age.

Now, what can we draw from these findings? It appears to stand out quite clearly, that money and fame may not be the most fulfilling goal to aspire to. We may be better off investing our time, not only in pursuing our career – which is obviously important, but mostly focusing on fostering and building our relationships with friends, family, and our community.

In a nutshell: George Vaillant, who directed the study for over three decades, concludes on the basis of his results that the “warmth of relationships throughout life have the greatest positive impact on ‘life satisfaction”. Or, as he says:

“Happiness is love. Full stop”.

Start The Discussion

Registered in England & Wales: Company number 07262479 – D-U-N-S Number 21-674-2575
Registered address: 22 Village Square, Bramhall Centre, Bramhall,

Tel: 0800 048 8615
Email: info@sixthsenseconsulting.co.uk


Use social media to stay up-to-date with us.


This website uses Cookies to improve your browsing experience. View Cookies Policy

I'm fine with this