The secret to happiness … isn’t so secret

This article is originally published on Research First’s blog.

It’s not often you find a social scientist who is unequivocal about what their research means. Instead, what most of us do is line up our disclaimers (‘this study suggests…’) and talk about the limitations of our work (‘more research is clearly needed’).

This happens so often that Harry Truman famously asked for a one-handed economist because he was tired of his economic advisors qualifying their recommendations with “on the other hand…”.

Truman would have liked Richard Waldinger. Waldinger is the current director of The Harvard Study of Development, and a man who has no time for equivocation. He writes “the clearest message that we get from this 75-year study is this: Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period”.

The previous director of the study, George Valliant, was even more succinct. He was adamant the results of the study could be captured in five words: “Happiness is love, full stop”. Elsewhere he gave himself the luxury of using fourteen-words, noting “the only thing that really matters in life are your relationships to other people”.

“the only thing that really matters in life are your relationships to other people” – George Valliant, The Harvard Study of Development

Sure, what goes on inside your head matters (as you’d expect a psychologist to say) but you are much more than what Errol Morris called the “buzzings in the ball of electric jelly inside [your] skull”. Your brain exists inside a physical body, which then lives in a social world. You were born to move and, as part of a social species, born to connect.

Of course, it makes no sense to separate these dimensions in this way. We arrived at being human through the interplay of those three things. We have the brains we have because our bodies move the way they do and because we are part of a social species. Still, being able to shift between these three perspectives will help you better understand why you make worse decisions when you’re hungry or feeling lonely, and why having stronger social ties will keep you healthier and help you live longer.

You may have already worked out where this going: The evidence from the social sciences couldn’t be clearer: To find more fulfillment in your life, keep learning; remain active; and stay connected.

The evidence from the social sciences couldn’t be clearer: To find more fulfillment in your life, keep learning; remain active; and stay connected.


Effective communication means overcoming people’s inherent biases – and to do this we must first understand these biases, and then how to apply this understanding to our communications strategies and tactics.

Looking for an opportunity to keep learning; remain active; and stay connected? Join us at this year’s Senior Professionals Event where Dan Bennett, Senior Behavioural Strategist at Ogilvy UK will present a highly interactive seminar on behavioural insight and how to use it to solve our biggest challenges.

View more details on Senior Professionals Event here.

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The Truman quote is all over the internet but I can’t find any published evidence that he ever actually said it. The closest I can find is the reference “As quoted in: To provide for amendment of the Bretton Woods agreements act, U.S. Govt. Print. Off., 1976” from

The Harvard Study of Development’s might be the longest continuous study of adult life ever. It has tracked over 720 men from Boston since 1939 and is still collecting data from the surviving participants. Its website is There are many publications on that site worth reading, and the Study even has its own Wikipedia page (

The Waldinger quote comes from the TEDx talk he gave in 2015 ( and you can see a transcript of that talk at…

The five word summary by George Vaillant comes from Scott Stossel’s “What Makes Us Happy: Revisited”, The Atlantic, May 2013.

The fourteen word version comes from Joshua Shenk’s What Makes Us Happy”, The Atlantic, June 2009.

To be fair, the idea that close relationships are the key to a happy life is well-known in social psychology, as is the link to better health outcomes. For instance, have a look at David Myers (1999) “Close Relationships and Quality of Life” in Well-Being: Foundations of Hedonic Psychology, edited by Daniel Kahneman et al., Russell Sage Foundation.

The Errol Morris quote is from his “is there such a thing as truth” in The Boston Review, April 30 2018

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