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The unexpected secret of a long and healthy life

Antelope couple

May The Forties Be With YouIt’s kale isn’t it? I knew it. If I want to live to a ripe old age, hiking up mountains with all the gusto of a 30 year old, I have to eat kale *weeps*. And if you love kale, I salute you (and think you’re a bit weird).

Actually, while what and how much we eat and drink as well as how much we move is very important to our long term health, there’s something else that may have a significant influence on our longevity: how happy we are.

You may well be thinking, “Well duh, of course being happy is good for you!” Well, yes but, as a scientist, I need to be able to prove something you might intuitively believe with hard evidence.

The Science Bit (I promise I won’t patronise you or flick my hair, Rachel-style)

A series of studies, carried out as part of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, aptly named by the current programme director Robert Waldinger “The longest study on happiness” followed groups of men and in later years women from early adulthood into old age (some participants are now in their nineties) taking blood tests, brain scans and body measurements as well as interviewing them to determine their psychological status, the strength of their personal relationships and their success, or otherwise, at work and play. Starting in 1938, the study focussed on 238 Harvard students (hence the male focus as women were excluded from the college in those days – insert all the eye rolling emojis please) but was later expanded to include the children of the men, their wives and a group of Bostonians living in some of the most deprived areas of the city to provide a balance to the privileged Harvard scholars.

The results are absolutely fascinating and I urge you to watch Professor Robert Waldinger’s inspiring TED talk on the study. While our younger selves may have identified that fame and money are the key to happiness and success (as did many of the study participants), it turns out that the strength of the participants’ relationships with their spouse, family, friends and their community is what kept them happy, whether they were Harvard graduates or from inner city Boston.

Several studies published on the data found that how happy people were in their close relationships at the age of 50 was a better predictor for health when aged 80 than their cholesterol levels. Robert Waldinger says in his TED talk: “The people who were the most satisfied in their relationships at age 50 were the healthiest at age 80.”

More specifically, the data showed that participants who were happy with their spouses had better mental health outcomes. For example, couples in their 80s who were happier in their relationship maintained a more positive mood, even on days when they experienced physical pain compared with those who were less happy in their relationship. Worryingly, the data seemed to show that loners often died younger: “Loneliness kills,” Waldinger said. “It’s as powerful as smoking or alcoholism.”

Good relationships and a strong social network throughout the lifespan (and I don’t mean lots of Facebook friends) may protect both physical and mental health and could be more influential to health than genetics, according to the research.

Sounds good! What’s the catch?

OK, so this is one data set that isn’t a random sample of the population nor is it representative of the US or global population as a whole. It’s also an observational study and by that I mean that the researchers merely observed the participants. They didn’t perform any experiments to determine whether perceived happiness CAUSED the improvements to mental and physical health so the links are only correlations. To be fair, you wouldn’t get ethical approval to lock people up with people they like or dislike for 60 years and see how healthy they end up, so this is the closest we can get to identifying how our personal relationships impact our health and longevity.

Also, bear in mind that the programme manager of this study changed four times over the years and the focus of the research changed depending on the personal interests of the leader. Robert Waldinger is a psychiatrist and Zen priest so he would be motivated to show that being happy and content throughout your life had a positive impact on your mental health.

That said, wider research (see here and here for the geeky stuff) has shown that periods of depression in mid-life can increase the risk of dementia and that having a strong social network, having a purpose in life and being mentally active throughout life (learning a new language or instrument, writing, doing crosswords) can reduce the risk. So there is likely to be something in it. And let’s face it, we’d all rather be happy wouldn’t we?

So I can eat what I like, as long as I’m happy?

Well, not quite! We still know that eating a balanced diet, particularly like the Mediterranean diet, including plenty of vegetables, fruit, whole grains, pulses, nuts, seeds, fish and small amounts of optional meat, is linked with a lower risk of many diseases.

But the world’s most healthy populations don’t just eat a balanced diet: lifestyle plays a key role in determining how healthy we are. Avoiding smoking and excessive alcohol consumption is a good idea but so is reducing stress, being active and getting enough sleep. So is having a strong social network, as we’ve seen. But above all, you have to enjoy your food, engage in activity that’s fun and take pleasure in life. And this is something that is forgotten all too often when we board the wellness train, with all its restrictions, purges and punishing regimes. So don’t sweat that G&T or pizza. Enjoy every mouthful, although perhaps not for every meal.

Final thoughts

So what to make of all of this? I’m hoping to come across as more Jerry Springer than the sanctimonious git that was Lion-o in Thundercats with his trite, end of show quips. I am not a Zen priest. I try to meditate with one eye on my to-do list and I’m guilty of sometimes neglecting friends when life gets in the way. I’m human. What can we all do to improve our relationships and hopefully therefore our health? No, don’t leave your husband… Here are some of my realistic suggestions for those non-Zen priests among us:

  • Get off your phone and actually talk with your partner! Sit at the table and have a meal together without phones or the TV on. Plan a date night once a month to get some quality time together.
  • Text, call or email a friend you haven’t caught up with for a while and arrange to meet up.
  • Instead of flaking out of a get together because you’re feeling tired or lacklustre (we’ve all done it), go out and see if it peps you up.
  • Do you have a family member with whom you don’t see eye to eye? Maybe try extending an olive branch to see if you can get the relationship back on track or at least on civil terms? I appreciate this isn’t always easy or possible…
  • Are you’re feeling isolated because you don’t have a partner or friends nearby? Try joining a local group and do something fun or learn something new. A walking, running or cycling group can help you to meet people in your area and get you moving in the fresh air, or a dance group, learning a new language or photography course can help you learn something new as well as meeting people.
  • Try volunteering in your local community, for example by working in a charity shop or for your nearby foodbank. Giving back to the community can be hugely rewarding.

Most importantly, don’t stress! No one has the perfect lifestyle, relationship or job, money can’t buy you happiness and success is more than the job that you do.

Photo by Bas van Brandwijk on Unsplash


  1. Annette Peters says:

    Brilliant article!!