In this day and age, many fall into the trap of defining their self-worth by 401(k) plans and followers on social media—and you could be one of them. But science just offered the perfect reminder that the most important things in life aren’t exactly material.
A 75-year Harvard study analyzed the physical and mental health of two groups of participants, including 456 low-income men in Boston from 1939 to 2014 and 268 male graduates from Harvard’s classes of 1939 to 1944. The researchers spent decades evaluating blood samples, brain scans, self-reported surveys, and personal interactions to determine what made these men feel the most fulfilled.
Their results couldn’t be clearer. “Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period,” said Robert Waldinger, director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development.
Having strong, happy relationships in your life relaxes your nervous system, keeps your brain healthy, and reduces both emotional and physical pain, researchers say. (Check out even more scientific benefits of having friends.) They also found that lonely people are more likely to experience an earlier decline in physical health and die younger.
And it’s not about the number of friends you have or whether or not you have a significant other, Waldinger says. Focus on the quality of your close relationships, instead.
That advice includes “finding a way of coping with life that does not push love away,” according to George Vaillant, the Harvard psychiatrist who directed the study from 1972 to 2004. During a particularly traumatic experience like losing a job, parent, or child, it’s important to rely relationships to help you heal rather than closing yourself off. Make sure to avoid all of the biggest myths about happy relationships, too.
In the end, all the money and success in the world won’t make you a happier, healthier person. A little TLC is the only thing you really need. (Plus, these will be the two happiest years of your life, according to science.)