What Do We Need to Be Happy?

and other insights from the longest running study of humans of all time

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Picture it: Harvard University, 1938.

268 male undergraduates were chosen to participate in a study to determine what factors were linked to people's health, happiness, success, and wellness. This study, known as the Harvard Grant Study, was directed by George Vaillant over the past several decades, a psychiatrist who published a book on its findings: The Triumphs of Experience.

Over the course of 75 years, Vaillant studied these men from their college graduations to their deathbeds, and some into their nineties.

Even though the sample of people is small and limited, as they are all Harvard educated white men, the results are interesting, to say the least. This post will report some of its most remarkable findings, including what we need to be happy.

Love trumps all.

Vaillant found in his study that the single most important predictor of happiness is love, and more specifically, the ability to love and be loved. 

In his own words, in a video interview, Vaillant notes,

"Happiness is love. Full stop."

Happiness is not about money, social class or career, but it is about relationships.

Other research in psychology and neuroscience continues to confirm that the more connected we are, the happier we are, that healthy relationships change our brains, and the emerging field of interpersonal neurobiology exists to study who we are in relation to important others in our lives.

The warmer you are, the more wealthy and happy you will be.

Vaillant noted that one predictor of economic success was having warm relationships with others. In fact, he found that the men who ranked highest in terms of warm relationships averaged an annual earning of $114,000 more than those who appeared to have the least warm relationships during their highest earning years.

Alcoholism was the most destructive force in the men's lives.

Alcoholism was found to correlate highest with divorce between the men in the study and their wives. It was also found to be related to depression. Coupled with cigarette smoking, alcoholism was the top cause of death for these men. Vaillant also noted that the alcohol abuse most often always preceded the problems in their lives, not the other way around. 

We have a lot more to do with the direction of our lives than genetics.

The study found a great deal of growth among many of the men that it followed. For example, one subject who was originally rated as one of the least happy subjects and actually attempted suicide at one point, turned things around in his life. He got appropriate mental health help, eventually married, and wound up as one of the happier men in the study.

Further, the study found that the people who did well in their older years were not necessarily the happy and successful men in middle-age, and the happiest men mid-life were not always happy toward the end of their lives.

Our lives, for the most part, are not predetermined by our genes, but by what we decide to do with them.

Enjoy where you are now.

Vaillant notes that one take home lesson of this study is to enjoy where you are now. Enjoy the present moment while allowing yourself to love and be loved, and if you are anything like these 268 men in the Harvard Grant study, happiness should be yours.


Vaillant, G. (2012). Triumphs of experience: The men of the Harvard Grant Study. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MA.

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