But when it comes to scientific research on how to actually be happy, studies have largely looked at both intrinsic factors, like your genetic makeup, and external factors, like practicing meditation. Perhaps the most interesting (and certainly most comprehensive) research project on happiness, though, is happening right now at Harvard’s Department of Psychiatry in the school’s Study of Adult Development—and it has been since 1938.
The original set of subjects were Harvard University students at the time, whom researchers tracked throughout their adulthood. In the 1970s, that research project teamed up with another study on happiness—one that had been looking at the population living in Boston’s low-income tenement housing. The partnership was critical, as it allowed for a contrast in socioeconomic status.
The current study director, Robert J. Waldinger, M.D., a one-time Harvard undergrad who never left campus, also considered new data collection methods, including talking to the subjects’ wives to discuss how marriage might impact someone’s well-being. In 2016, Dr. Waldinger outlined his most current findings in a TED Talk that’s making its way around the Internet, and one clear conclusion has emerged: The most important measurement of someone’s health and well-being is directly related to their strength of relationships with family and friends. This contrasts with other surveys, misconceptions, and generalities, such as fame and fortune being keys to happiness.
If you’re looking for the secret for how to be happy, Waldinger shares some suggestions with The New York Times. “Something as simple as replacing screen time with people time, or livening up a stale relationship by doing something new together, long walks or date nights [could work],” he says. “Reach out to that family member you haven’t spoken to in years—because those all-too-common family feuds take a terrible toll on the people who hold the grudges.”
Watch the full TED Talk below to learn more about Dr. Waldinger’s work, the Harvard study, and how you can foster happiness not only within yourself but with others too.