6 Tips for Happy Life

  • Harvard University followed 800 people around for their whole lives in order to better understand what makes people happier, healthier and therefore extend their life expectancy.
  • The first sample of 268 Harvard graduates who were born around 1920 is considered the longest study of physical and mental health that has ever been conducted.
  • The second sample is considered as the longest study of “blue collar” adult development in history.
  • The third sample is considered the longest study on how women develop in history.
  • There were, overall, six factors in play when considering the impact on happiness and longevity – those six include relationships, education and even generosity.

There are many articles and even books out there where you are taught how to be happier, more productive or even have better relationships. However, each of these has to be taken with a grain of salt. A complete guide on how to live your life perfectly, even though unpredictable events, just does not exist.

There is only one method that we can truly count on, and that is to simply follow people around for their whole life and see what truly impacts their lives. Thankfully, researchers did just that.

A study was released, titled The Study of Adult Development that managed to combine three, ages long studies. In other words, the study includes research projects that were made from people’s youth and up to their old age.  

According to Aging Well: Surprising Guideposts to a Happier Life from the Landmark Study of Adult Development:

“The Study of Adult Development is a rarity in medicine, since it set out to study the lives of the well, not the sick. In so doing it has integrated three cohorts of elderly men and women — all of whom have been studied continuously for six to eight decades. First, there is a sample of 268 socially advantaged Harvard graduates born around 1920 — the longest prospective study of physical and mental health in the world. Second, there is a sample of 456 socially disadvantaged Inner City men born around 1930 — the longest prospective study of “blue collar” adult development in the world. Third, there is a sample of 90 middle-class, intellectually gifted women born around 1910 — the longest prospective study of women’s development in the world … Like the proverbial half loaf of bread, these studies are not perfect; but for the present, they are, arguably, the best lifelong studies of adult development in the world.”

The study that expanded for over 30 years was lead by George Vaillant, who is a professor at Harvard Medical School. He released a book titled Aging Well: Surprising Guideposts to a Happier Life from the Landmark Study of Adult Development.

The study has gathered data from nearly 1000 people for almost a whole century, so there are plenty of advice and insights that we can draw out. We decided to cover the top six that may help you on your path to a greater life.

We apologize for starting with the most obvious advice, but the impact on your life can not be ignored.

Drinking Alcohol and Smoking Is a No-Go 

According to the data from the college men that were studied, heavy smoking was ten times more frequent in the “prematurely dead” group than in the “happy-well” group. 

This is a no-brainer, and we really need to stress this one, even though it sounds like a cliche. Smoking is bad for you.

As you could imagine it was also considered the number one predictive factor of health, according to the study.

According to Aging Well: Surprising Guideposts to a Happier Life from the Landmark Study of Adult Development:

“In both male cohorts not being a heavy smoker before the age of 50 was the most important single predictive factor of healthy physical aging. Among the College men, heavy smoking (more than a pack a day for thirty years) was ten times more frequent among the Prematurely Dead than among the Happy-Well. Yet if a man had stopped smoking by age 45, the effects of smoking (as much as one pack a day for twenty years) could at 70 or 80 no longer be discerned.”

6 Tips for Happy Life

On the other hand, drinking not only causes irreparable damage to your health, but it also makes you unhappier and can destroy relationships if you drink for long periods of time.

One could argue that more than a handful people drink because they have problems in their lives and alcohol is a way to hide those problems. However, the study found out that alcohol itself is not always the result of problems, but an independent cause of problems, as well.

According to Aging Well: Surprising Guideposts to a Happier Life from the Landmark Study of Adult Development:

“… a prospective study reveals that alcohol abuse is a cause rather than a result of increased life stress, of depression, and of downward social mobility … Alcohol abuse — unrelated to unhappy childhood — consistently predicted unsuccessful aging, in part because alcoholism damaged future social supports.”

Doing regular exercise along with a healthy weight not only increased the lifespan of the subjects but also boosted their happiness. To put it all into simple terms, if you do what is healthy for you, it will pay off.

While this point was fairly obvious, the next one might not be. To keep yourself healthy you need to keep your brain healthy. Just not how you think. 

Education Is Good for You

According to the study, if you are constantly educating yourself, you develop better habits and live a healthier life.

It is therefore not surprising that the subjects who studied at Harvard were much healthier at the age of 70 than their counterparts who did not have the privilege of a longer education. However, there is a twist.

There is no difference once you compare subjects from groups that did in-fact attend college.

According to Aging Well: Surprising Guideposts to a Happier Life from the Landmark Study of Adult Development:

“… the physical health of the 70-year old Inner City men was as poor as that of the Harvard men at 80. But remarkably, the health of the college-educated Inner City men at 70 was as good as that of the Harvard men at 70. This was in spite of the fact that their childhood social class, their tested IQ, their income, and the prestige of their colleges and jobs were markedly inferior to those of the Harvard men. Parity of education alone was enough to produce parity in physical health.”

6 Tips for Happy Life

In short, family income or IQ had nothing to do with this. Subjects who pursued more and better education simply developed better habits and lived healthier lives.

According to Aging Well: Surprising Guideposts to a Happier Life from the Landmark Study of Adult Development:

“The components of education that appeared to correlate with physical health in old age were self-care and perseverance — not IQ and parental income. The more education that the Inner City men obtained, the more likely they were to stop smoking, eat sensibly, and use alcohol in moderation.”

The next key point might be a bit sad because we can not change our past. Or maybe we can?

A Happy Child

According to the study “what goes right in childhood predicts the future far better than what goes wrong.” 

The social class to which a child was born into had a lower impact on the child’s adult income than if the child was raised in an environment that was filled with love and encouragement.

According to Aging Well: Surprising Guideposts to a Happier Life from the Landmark Study of Adult Development:

“… for both the Inner City men and the Harvard men the best predictor of a high income was not their parents’ social class but whether their mother made them feel loved.”

There is a difference in how people handle stressful situations. It is therefore not surprising that some people claim that stressful situations is what builds character and defines you as a person. According to the Study of Adult Development, those subject who aged well were also the people who strolled through a, for some, the most traumatic experience of their lives, called adolescence.

According to Aging Well: Surprising Guideposts to a Happier Life from the Landmark Study of Adult Development:

“Again, as I have followed the lives of the Inner City men, one of the best indicators of successful aging was how well they adapted in junior high school. Of the 150 Inner City men with the best scores for coping in junior high school, 56 were among the Happy-Well and only 13 were among the Sad-Sick. Of the 19 Inner City men with the lowest scores for adolescent adaptation, only a single man was among the Happy-Well, and 11 men, three-fifths, were among the Sad-Sick or Prematurely Dead. Successful adolescence predicted successful old age.”

6 Tips for Happy Life

We are all well aware that this is not helpful at all for some people, because nobody chose their parents at birth, but not all hope is lost. Even though you may have been raised in a bad, toxic environment, or your adolescence was a living nightmare that doesn’t in any way mean that you are in a worse life position than anyone else.

According to research, the things that matter in the end and define you are the things that went right in the childhood, not those that went wrong.

According to Aging Well: Surprising Guideposts to a Happier Life from the Landmark Study of Adult Development:

“A warm childhood, like a rich father, tended to inoculate the men against future pain, but a bleak childhood — such as with a poverty-stricken father — did not condemn either the Harvard or the Inner City men to misery … Perhaps the best summary statement is, What goes right in childhood predicts the future far better than what goes wrong.”

Now here is an even better fact that might even brighten the flame of the candle we just lit. Even if you are given love and support later in your life it can be strong enough to heal all the old wounds.

For example, the research showed that when people finally found a spouse who truly loved them or managed to get a friend whom they could trust, all the damage that was sustained in their troubled childhood was fixed.

According to Aging Well: Surprising Guideposts to a Happier Life from the Landmark Study of Adult Development:

“It is not the bad things that happen to us that doom us; it is the good people who happen to us at any age that facilitate enjoyable old age … For women, as well as for men, spouses could sometimes heal dysfunctional childhoods … A good marriage at age 50 predicted positive aging at age 80 … After following disadvantaged Hawaiian youth for almost half a century, Emmy Werner explained that “the most salient turning points … for most of these troubled individuals, however, were meeting a caring friend and marrying an accepting spouse. “”

Love is something that we as human beings need and it should surround us every day, regardless of our age. Even though a great childhood in a loving environment is truly a great thing, it can all be narrowed down to “better late than never.”

The next point correlates to this one, and both of these are the ones you should remember forever.

There Is No Life Without Relationships

According to the study, those who give and those who receive with gratitude live longer than those who don’t.

The majority of subjects, men and women, who were smart and were born into a wealthy family, did not cope well. Those who did not have such advantages coped with life just fine. In the end, what made the difference was the ability with how people managed to interact and deal with other people.

According to Aging Well: Surprising Guideposts to a Happier Life from the Landmark Study of Adult Development:

“The lives of all three cohorts repeatedly demonstrated that it was social aptitude — sometimes called emotional intelligence — not intellectual brilliance or parental social class that leads to a well-adapted old age. …. successful aging means giving to others joyously whenever one is able, receiving from others gratefully whenever one needs it, and being greedy enough to develop one’s own self in between.”

6 Tips for Happy Life

So, you might ask yourself, based on scientific research, what are the biggest mistakes that people make when it comes to relationships? There are a few, but the biggest one is definitely not pursuing new relationships when the old ones crumble. Relationships should be replaced in order to fill the void.

According to Aging Well: Surprising Guideposts to a Happier Life from the Landmark Study of Adult Development:

“Successful aging requires continuing to learn new things and continuing to take people in … a widening social radius at age 50 was just as important to successful psychosocial aging as emotional maturity.”

When Vaillant was asked to summarize what The Grant Study was all about, he replied, “Happiness is love. Full stop.”

All in all, what was the major point that separated success and failure between the observed subjects? It is considered one of the biggest predictive factors, and we will cover it in our next point.

Cope or Fail

This one is a no-brainer. If you have bad coping mechanisms, such as pouting, blaming others or prolonging having to deal with your problems in order to have short-term happiness, then you won’t truly be happy.

It all depends on how you are using your “mature defenses” to respond to various events in your life. Especially when those events are painful.

When we are teenagers, pouting and spreading the blame on others is a natural response, and a phase we all go through. When we reach adulthood, we start to think rationally and see that the environment is not usually the only problem, but we might be the cause of our own problems too. However, some people do not achieve that mental state and continue to carry their teenage phase into their adulthood, blaming everyone but themselves and pouting when things do not go their way.

As you can imagine, this is not a great way to deal with problems in your life. Reactions like this will cause more problems that will have consequences even when you are much older.

According to Aging Well: Surprising Guideposts to a Happier Life from the Landmark Study of Adult Development:

“… In both samples, mature defenses were common among the Happy-Well and virtually absent among the Sad-Sick.”

6 Tips for Happy Life

According to the study, when subjects were living in denial and blaming people around them for their own mistakes, their life had a poor outcome. These people were happy in the short-term because they managed to vent off their negative feelings on to others, but in the long-term, their interaction with the environment destroyed their relationships and only led to poor life decisions.

Those subject who did in-fact succeed in life choose a much more mature approach to their life. For example, altruism, sublimation, suppression, and humor all played a massive role in their life.

According to Aging Well: Surprising Guideposts to a Happier Life from the Landmark Study of Adult Development:

“These four mature coping strategies are not only associated with maturity, but they can be reframed as virtues. Such virtues can include doing as one would be done by (altruism); artistic creation to resolve conflict and spinning straw into gold (sublimation); a stiff upper lip, patience, seeing the bright side (suppression); and the ability not to take oneself too seriously (humor). These latter behaviors are the very stuff of which Victorian morality plays are made and they provide antidotes to narcissism.”

While adolescence ends as a phase of human life, adolescent behavior can carry on long into adulthood. Sometimes even into old age.

Therefore, if you have mastered the mature way of coping with your problems, and do not act like a little brat, you are already one step ahead of those who do. However, you might want to take your coping skills to the next level.

Be Generous

There is no better way to improve your life than to help those around you.

If we were to underline the whole research, it would always come to generativity. It will always give back to you.

According to Aging Well: Surprising Guideposts to a Happier Life from the Landmark Study of Adult Development:

“Generativity means community building. Depending on the opportunities that the society makes available, Generativity can mean serving as a consultant, guide, mentor, or coach to young adults in the larger society. Research reveals that between age 30 and 45 our need for achievement declines and our need for community and affiliation increases.”

There is a time in our life, especially when we are still very young, that we are selfish. That is a normal thing, because we are still trying to figure out how the world works, and we are not truly aware of how to deal with giving stuff away.

However, when we do figure everything out, we understand that being selfish will lead nowhere and that we truly need to help those in need.

According to Aging Well: Surprising Guideposts to a Happier Life from the Landmark Study of Adult Development:

“Among all three samples, generative men and women at 50 were three to six times as likely to be among the Happy-Well in old age as among the Sad-Sick … In all three Study cohorts mastery of Generativity tripled the chances that the decade of the 70s would be for these men and women a time of joy and not of despair.”

The best plan is to build on yourself for the first few decades, so you live a good and secure life, and spend the remaining time helping others and giving away. We are not talking only about materialistic things. Give away what you have learned through life. Knowledge can and will help those who seek it.

We have covered the main six points. Here is a short summary.

6 Tips for Happy Life


If you want to make your life happy and successful:

• Avoid or quit smoking and drinking alcohol.

• Educate yourself for as long as possible. Good habits and being surrounded by smart people makes all the difference.

• A happy and loving childhood is a huge thing. However, do not forget to find love later in your life as well.

• Work on your relationships. “Happiness is love. Full stop.”

•You need to cope maturely. When a thing is tough, use mature coping skills, and do not act like a child.

• Be generous. If you have a good life, learn to give back.

George Vaillant managed to ruin his life with this research as well. He was spending so much time interviewing people who were living off of Social Security checks that he ended up in their place by the time the study was finished.

George did not look up to his father, who was an archeologist, because that life did not interest him. However, after seeing stacks of reports on his father’s desk, he knew that he would one day like to pursue a career where his desk would be filled with reports of people’s lives as well.

His study, which he released in his book, contains information and insights into how to live a good life. While we only covered the top six, if you were to tell George your score in each of these categories, he would be able to predict your happiness and overall health for the next thirty years.

According to Aging Well: Surprising Guideposts to a Happier Life from the Landmark Study of Adult Development:

“The protective factors a stable marriage, the ability to make lemonade from lemons, avoiding cigarettes, modest use of alcohol, regular exercise, high education, and maintaining a normal weight — allow us to predict health thirty years in the future.”

Not a single insight orders you to be born into a wealthy family, or to be a talented individual. It is the thing that we all can do that really shape us and lead us to success. Do not be afraid to form new relationships or to take some night classes if you have to.

As long as you put effort into it, you too can live a good, happy life. It is all in your hands, it always will be. As George himself said,

“Whether we live to a vigorous old age lies not so much in our stars or our genes as in ourselves.”

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