The Harvard Study of Adult Development is the longest, longitudinal, and prospective study in the world. The study began in 1938 and has been showing how to live a healthy and happy life. It focuses on adult development, tracking and investigating the factors (biological and psychosocial) that make people happy and healthy. Rather than tracking or studying what goes wrong in adult life, this study focuses on the positive aspects of adult development – what goes right and therefore what leads to health and happiness.

One of the main findings of the study is that as we get older (especially past our mid-forties) we actually get happier. I wonder if that is true for you. Maybe we are more spiritually aware, or aware of our own mortality, and therefore more grateful for the smaller or simpler things in life? That certainly makes sense and is true for me.

The researchers have uncovered three kinds of happiness – hedonistic happiness (i.e. short-term happiness that gives us that dopamine, feel-good fix), long-term happiness, defined as having a goal, purpose or meaning to life, and lastly the type of happiness people get from experiences in life, e.g. travelling to new places, learning an instrument, or taking up a new hobby or sport. Most of us want a mixture of all 3, although research has found that the happiest people are those that strive for the second and third types of happiness. So, having a clear purpose in life, as well as getting out there and experiencing “life” leads to greater happiness.

So, what else makes us happy?

What we think would make us happy, and what actually makes us happy are not always the same thing. When asked the question, “What would make you happy?”, most people’s answer is money. To be honest that is no surprise. But what the research found is that once our financial needs are met (shelter, food, clothing etc.) money does not make a person happier. Having said that, if a person was happy before they made, or earned more money, money could make them happier. However, if a person was unhappy before money arrived, money most certainly did not make them happy.

What really makes people happy, long term, is the quality, width, and breath of their social connections. In addition to that, being “socially fit” leads to better health (i.e., stronger immune systems, and lower risk of cardiovascular disease). It is a winning cycle – the healthier you are, the happier you are, and the happier you are, the healthier you are! Don’t you think that is profound?

Social fitness has become a leading known factor in our health and wellbeing.

The Harvard Study of Adult Development found that people who are more socially connected to family, friends, and community, are happier, physically healthier, and live longer than people who are less well connected. But, just like our physical fitness, however, social fitness requires effort and consistency. We don’t go to one yoga class, or pilates class, get home and say, “That’s it, I have done that, I don’t need to go anymore”. We practise consistently, and become stronger, fitter, and more flexible, physically, and mentally. The same goes for our social life and social connections.

So, how can we improve our social fitness? It’s easy really, and you’re probably already doing it, and feeling socially, very fit. If you’re not, however, start by phoning that friend you haven’t spoken to in a while. Or maybe meet up with your class buddies for coffee or lunch or organise a regular weekly walk with a loved one. Maybe you are more drawn to joining a walking club, or reading club, or tennis club? Anything that helps us connect with others is going to lead to greater happiness, and, just as importantly, to greater health. It is a win-win, and an easy one at that!