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In 1938, at the end of the Great Depression, researchers at Harvard University began tracking the health of 724 individuals, a combination of Harvard sophomores and low-income teenagers in Boston. The goal was simple enough: Follow the lives of the participants – from their childhood troubles to their final days – to learn what makes a person happy and healthy.

Today, 85 years later, Harvard Study of Adult Development is considered one of the world’s longest-running studies of adult life and human happiness. During that time, the researchers collected detailed personal information along with a dataset from the participants, including DNA samples and brain scans, as the scope of the study expanded to include more than 1,300 descendants of the original subjects.

Over the course of nine decades (and three generations), one key discovery emerged: Close relationshipsnot wealth or fame or even IQ, are the secret ingredient to a happy life.

“The surprising finding is that our relationships and how happy we are in our relationships have a strong impact on our health,” said Robert Waldinger, the study’s current director and professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, in article in Harvard Gazette. “Taking care of your body is important, but taking care of your relationships is also a form of self-care. I think that’s the revelation.

It turns out that there’s a lot that research can reveal about the pursuit of happiness—and the best ways to secure it.

1. Nurture your relationships

The Harvard study isn’t the only time scientists have found a link between the happiness and strength of our relationships. An ever-increasing body of research shows that people who have close relationships I live longerare better protected against stress and depression and even less susceptible to inflammation and disease. A meta-analysis of social support and longevity, published in Frontiers in Psychology in 2021 found “very consistent evidence accumulated over the past 60 years” that social support can help people live longer and healthier lives.


Read more: A study shows that happy couples share love languages


These benefits cover all types of relationships, from friends and family to colleagues and romantic partners. And when it comes to romantic relationships, it might be worth taking the time to identify your and your partner’s love languages—or how each of you prefers to receive love: a study published in diary PLoS One in 2022 found that people in satisfied relationships express love in the way their partners prefer to receive it. In short, learning love languages ​​can increase the strength of your relationship.

2. Perform random acts of kindness

Yes, your kindergarten teacher was right all along. In fact, lending a hand to someone in need can actually benefit you own physical and mental health. Researchers at the University of Oxford found that participants who performed daily acts of kindness for a week — such as helping a neighbor, paying for someone’s movie ticket or writing a thank-you card — experienced greater happiness, according to study published in 2019 in Journal of Social Psychology. In addition, scientists noticed that the more good deeds a person performs, the happier he feels.

Being kind can have a measurable impact on the body, too. In addition to strengthening the neurotransmitters in our brains that make us feel good, like serotonin and dopamine, random acts of kindness can reduce levels of stress hormone cortisoltoo.

3. Surround yourself with happy people

Modern research shows that our emotions affect the people around us, including happiness. Scientists have found that those who associate with cheerful people have happier behaviors — and as a result, a better sense of overall well-being, according to longitudinal study conducted over 20 years in collaboration with the Framingham Heart Study.

Researchers have also seen that changes in individual happiness can have a cascading effect, stirring up your social network as emotional contagion. This means that one person’s joy has the potential to cause a chain reaction of more than just benefits theirs friends, but their friends’ friends and their friends’ friends…


Read more: Why are emotions contagious?


In short, as famously in Charles Dickens Christmas song: “There is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good cheer.”

4. Practice gratitude

That’s more than just modern fashion — and it’s no secret among scientists that gratitude can change yours the neurochemistry of the brain, releasing the mood-enhancing neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine. Plus, regularly engaging in a gratitude practice like journaling can actually strengthen these neural pathways. Scientists studying psychological well-being among nurses found that practicing gratitude led to less fatigue, fewer sick days and greater job satisfaction, according to a study published in International Journal of Occupational Health Management.

And, if nothing else, it can help us overcome our hard-wired negative bias, or the psychological tendency to focus on negative events instead of positive ones. Surely that’s something to be thankful for, right?

5. Smile more

Charles Darwin was one of the first to suggest that emotions could be modified by the activity of facial muscles, a concept known as face feedback hypothesis. “Free expression by outward signs of emotion intensifies it,” he wrote in 1872. And recent research supports Darwin’s hypothesis: Scientists have found that the simple act of forming your facial muscles into a smile (even if you’re not feeling particularly happy ) can evoke positive emotions and lift your mood, according to a 2020 study

Other research also supports this feedback. In a surprising twist, researchers at Cardiff University in Wales found that people who have received botox cosmetic injections — and therefore were restricted in their ability to frown — reported being happier overall than those who could grimace without restriction.

In other words: Fake it till you make it!

6. Seek daily experiences of awe

We’ve all felt it. Perhaps it was prompted by the first time you stood in a grove of redwoods, mouth agape. Or when your mind was blown by a guitar solo at a rock concert. It may even be inspired by a particularly heartfelt poem, play, or work of art.

Whatever form it takes, a growing body of research shows that experiencing awe can improve our health and happiness. And you don’t even have to give money for a trip to Paris or Grand Canyon to reap those rewards. The researchers found that participants who read briefly an awe-inspiring story seeing Paris from the top of the Eiffel Tower felt more satisfaction at that moment than people who read a story about seeing a landscape from up high.

Plus, cultivating awe can even help you nurture these all-important social bonds — and feel more connected to humanity as a whole. An international team of researchers conducted a series of experiments who showed that experiences of awe actually reduce our own sense of self-importance. This new way of thinking – what scientists have called the “small self” perspective – seems to help us form social groups.

That’s great, really.


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