In 1938, the still-ongoing Grant Study was launched at Harvard University, tracking the lives of 268 Harvard students from age 18 onward to determine, among other things, what characteristics, habits and life experiences allow people to flourish.
The study confirmed several things that common sense tells us are true: That having a loving childhood predicts happiness in adulthood. That men are happier in their mature years if they’re close with their children. And that one of the predictors for happiness in old age is being in a good marriage.
The secret to happiness is giving and accepting love, says George Vaillant, director of the Grant Study from 1972 to 2004, because people need to establish meaningful connections with other people in order to truly feel joy.
“What characterizes the positive emotions faith, hope, love, awe, gratitude, which lead to happiness, is that you can’t feel any of those without connection,” Vaillant says. “You don’t feel joy, love, compassion on a desert island.”
The Grant Study men who never allowed themselves to fully give and receive love (even if they were married) were some of the unhappiest study subjects. “Love is dangerous because it makes us vulnerable,” Vaillant says.
If you weren’t born into a loving family, you can create your own “family” with friends or relatives; blood connections are irrelevant, as long as you treat your “family” as such.
“It isn’t that relatives are so important; it’s the ability to both make connections and to take the connections in,” Vaillant says. “Giving and accepting love has to be a two-way street.”
We asked over 6,000 of Reader’s Digest readers in Finland, Germany, Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Slovenia, Russia, and the United States this question: Which of the following is most important to your happiness: faith, work, family or community? See the surprising results.
Next: How we find happiness from Community, Work, and Faith