The Single Most Important Lesson From Harvard’s Longest Study On Happiness
We, humans, are complicated. And happiness is one of the most complicated emotions we experience. Our life is often a pursuit to unravel its meaning.
Everyone has their own definition of happiness. We live, grow, and evolve, and as we do, our definition of happiness changes.
Harvard researchers analyzed gigabytes of scientific data to figure out what makes people truly happy.
Having worked as a science researcher for the last 4 years, I’ve now become a bit skeptical of the word “science”, as I see it being thrown around everywhere these days. Scientific research is often based on some assumptions which don’t translate well to generality.
Hence, when I came across this study, I had my share of my doubts. I cross-checked the assumptions they made, the sample size they took, and any biases that might have crept in their research.
Harvard began this research in 1938, and it’s now over 80 years old. It’s led by Dr. Robert Waldinger, professor at Harvard Medical School, who is the fourth director to lead this study in its entirety.
Over 75 years, they tracked the lives of 724 men, year after year, documenting their careers, personal lives, and health. No one had any idea whatsoever of how these students’ lives would turn out.
The participants, who were all teenage men when they first started, went on to pursue a myriad of careers — from factory workers and lawyers to bricklayers and doctors, one even becoming the President of the United States.
To collect authentic data, the academics designed detailed questionnaires and followed them up with intimate interviewing of the participants in their living rooms. They also collected the participants’ medical records, scanned their brains, and talked to their children and wives. They occasionally videotaped deep and honest conversations of the men with their wives.
I was convinced of their diligence. It didn’t just contain anecdotes and snippets. It was a goddamn blueprint of their actual lives.
As Dr. Waldinger mentioned, in his TED Talk:
“Pictures of entire lives, of the choices that people make and how those choices work out for them, those pictures are almost impossible to get. Most of what we know about human life we know from asking people to remember the past, and as we know, hindsight is anything but 20/20. Memory can be downright creative.”
Based on thousands of pages of information assimilated, the team inferred some simple but powerful lessons for a happy, fulfilled life.
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