What makes a good life? Lessons from a longitudinal study

The Harvard Study of Adult Development may be the longest continuous longitudinal study in the world.

For 75 years it has tracked the lives 724 men, year after year asking them about the their health, their home-life and the their work, with around 50 of the original participants still alive, now in their 80s, and continuing to study their more than 2000 children.

Since 1935 they studied two groups of men: one group from Harvard University and another groups from the poorest sectors of Boston, who typically lived in Tenements in the 1930s.

On of the key findings is that being in close relationships is the best predictor of leading a long, happy, health, life.

The findings of the study are many varied, but the video above outlines some of the most interesting which are relevant to the families and households modules in A-level sociology.

Key Findings from the Harvard Study

The lessons are not about fame, or wealth, or working harder and harder, the clearest message of this 75 year study is that it’s mainly good relationships which keep us happy and healthier.

Firstly, social connections are really good for us and loneliness kills: those people who are more socially connected to family, friends and family are happier, physically healthier, and they live longer than those who are less well connected. People who are more socially isolated than they want to be are less happy, their health declines earlier in mid-life, as does their brain function, and they die younger.

The sad fact is that at any given time, 1 in 5 Americans will report that they are lonely.

Secondly, it’s the quality of the relationships you have that matter, not the type of relationship or the number of relationships, it’s the quality of your close relationships that matters most. Healthy longevity is not (surprisingly?) associated with being in a committed relationship, or having lots of friends,

In fact, being in a ‘toxic relationship’ where you’re constantly facing conflict is perhaps worse for your health than getting divorced! And living in the midst of warm relationships is protective of health.

The level of satisfaction with one’s relationship at age 50 is a better predictor than cholesterol levels of being in good physical and mental health at the 80: those who were most satisfied in their relationships at age 50 were the ones most likely to go to become healthy octogenarians.

Good close relationships also seem to buffer us from physical problems related to ageing: those who experienced physical pain in their 80s reported better mood levels if they were in good quality relationships.

A third lesson is that good relationships don’t just protect our bodies, they protect our brains. People in close relationships have sharper memories, and vice versa for those experiencing

A couple of qualifications

Being in a ‘good relationship’ doesn’t mean couples don’t argue and bicker, that’s just part of any relationship!

All of the above only applies to people who want relationships.

Just for emphasis – in the above study, a ‘good relationship’ doesn’t exclusively mean being in a committed long term relationship with one person: it might mean having close friends.

Relevance to A-level sociology

This is great material to evaluate various aspects of the families and households module.

You could also use it to criticise the obsession some of us have with gaining followers on social media…. judging by this study, this doesn’t seem like such a good way to achieve health, happiness and longevity.

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