The Key to a Happier Life

Last week, I did something scientifically-proven to increase happiness; I visited my local insurance agent’s office. More about this later. First, I want to introduce you to Robert Waldinger, MD. Waldinger is the fourth director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, the world’s longest scientific study of happiness and one of the most comprehensive longitudinal studies ever conducted. The study began in 1938 and a few dozen of the original participants are still living.

The main finding of the Harvard study is that the people who are happiest, healthiest and live longest have positive relationships and warm connections. They are less likely to develop illnesses such as heart disease, Type 2 Diabetes, and arthritis and have improved overall well-being. Waldinger says that relationships are emotion regulators and one reason is that “friends diminish our perception of hardship…”. 

Let’s test their finding. 

Take a moment to recall a time you reached out to someone when you were sad, anxious, angry or stressed. Assuming that the person was a good listener (a big assumption today with all that distracts us - an article for another time!), how did you feel after the conversation? Were you calmer and more relaxed even if the friend said nothing? You possibly even solved a dilemma. Imagine the impact if you reach out to others regularly. Relatedly, a Gallup survey documented the value of having a supportive person at work. The survey asked 15 million workers, Do you have a best friend at work? Only 3 out of 10 did and they were more engaged, productive and less likely to leave their job. Waldinger and his co-director, Marc Schulz, PhD have shared the study’s findings in their new book, The Good Life: Lessons from the longest study on happiness. Waldinger also discusses the study in his Ted Talk, What Makes a Good Life?

Why are relationships so important? Waldinger said that it is due to anciently-evolved patterns. Evolution is about survival and we are better at surviving dangers in groups. In ancient societies, being exiled was considered an extreme punishment because you literally were less likely to survive. In fact, our sleep can be lighter and more easily disrupted when we are alone because increased vigilance is necessary to be safe.

In light of the study, Waldinger says that we need to be more intentional about our “social fitness” by asking the following questions. 

  • Safety and security: Who would you call if you woke up scared in the middle of the night? Who would you turn to in a moment of crisis?
  • Learning and growth: Who encourages you to try new things, to take chances, to pursue your life goals?
  • Emotional closeness and confiding: Who knows everything (or most things) about you? Who can you call on when you’re feeling low and be honest with about how you’re feeling?
  • Identity affirmation and shared experience: Is there someone in your life who has shared many experiences with you and who helps you strengthen your sense of who you are?
  • Romantic intimacy: Do you feel satisfied with the amount of romantic intimacy in your life?
  • Help (both informational and practical): Who do you turn to if you need some expertise or help solving a practical problem?
  • Fun and relaxation: Who makes you laugh? Who do you call to see a movie or go on a road trip with who makes you feel connected and at ease?

Not all of the above needs will be equally important to you. Also, each of us determines the number of people we want in our lives. Introverts generally need fewer people in their support system as compared to extroverts. I recommend going to this link for an article by Schulz and Waldinger which includes an exercise to help us assess our social support. Of course, LAPBC can be a helpful resource if you have relationship challenges and concerns.

So, what does the visit with my insurance agent have to do with all of this? Following the business portion of my visit, we talked about where I was from, where he was raised and… how we both loved brussel sprouts (since I happened to be carrying a bag of them). The conversation only lasted 5-10 minutes, but I walked out of his office happier even though my bank account was considerably sadder. Waldinger says that these smaller positive connections or “micro-interactions” can make us happier too. For me, positive micro-interactions can occur with baristas, fellow community gardeners, the 94 year-old volunteer at Canadian Blood Services, and, of course, insurance agents. Usually, the result is a positive jolt to my mood. During the pandemic lockdown, these micro-interactions were lost and for many of us the negative impact was significant. 

The impact of positive relationships is not limited to the US. Denmark is consistently ranked as one of the happiest countries in the world. What makes the Danes so happy? Meik Wiking says one major factor is something called hygge (roughly pronounced “hoo-gah”). Hygge literally means “well-being”. Wiking is the CEO of the Happiness Research Institute, an independent think-tank that explores the causes and effects of happiness. He defines hygge as: 

“[A]n atmosphere and experience, rather than about things. It is about being with people we love. A feeling of home. A feeling that we are safe, that we are shielded from the world and allow ourselves to let our guard down. You may be having an endless conversation about the small or big things in life—or just be comfortable in each other’s silent company—or simply be by yourself enjoying a cup of tea.”

Wiking says that after all of his years of happiness research he is certain about one thing; that our social relationships are the best predictor of our happiness. “It is the clearest and most reoccurring pattern I see when I look at the evidence on why some people are happier than others.” (The Little Book of Hygge: The Danish Way to Live Well). Wiking says one explanation is the hormone oxytocin, the release of which leads to a greater sense of well-being. Oxytocin is called the “cuddle hormone” because it is released through touch. Interestingly, music also increases oxytocin levels, especially when people sing in groups which increases social connection.

Even when our loved ones and friends are not around we can still feel connected to them. The Greater Good Science Center (GGSC) is a resource for evidence-based practices, including exercises that can increase our sense of connectedness. One practice involves looking around your home or office and identifying things that remind you of loved ones, such as photos, objects or other memorabilia. As I am typing this article, I notice photos of my dogs and my mom’s sculpture on my desk and I immediately feel comforted. Part of the exercise is also to pay attention day-to-day for additional items that evoke a feeling of connection. Consider moving them to rooms where you spend more of your time, including your office. See the GGSC’s website for other exercises to increase connection. 

It is important to note that positive relationships don’t just happen. They need to be attended to and maintained. A lawyer I know enjoys writing and snail-mailing letters to friends, but connecting can also be a quick text, DM or phone call. This discussion about relationships led me to think about John, my former boss and longtime friend, and how I need to reach out to him. In the last 24 hours have you thought about or considered reaching out to a friend? The next time you have a similar thought, do it! By the way, positive relationships are not without conflicts, so don’t give up on one simply because you are going through a rough patch. All relationships need the investment of time, energy and open communication. Of course, some relationships are toxic and strong boundaries need to be set. 

Waldinger says that study participants in their 80s regretted spending too much time at work and not enough time with loved ones. Many of us lawyers respond to increased workplace demands by putting in longer hours, which inevitably takes a toll on us and our relationships. Considering the study’s findings and the older participant’s lessons, it would be wise to not substitute achievement at work for loving and supportive relationships. 

Life throws us many unexpected curveballs. As John Lennon sings in “Beautiful Boy”, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans”. The good news is our relationships can help us cope with “life” and improve our happiness overall. So…what is one thing you can commit to right now to strengthen a current relationship or create a new warm connection? 

Michael Kahn
Michael Kahn, M.Ed.,JD joined LAPBC in 2019.