A Harvard Study on the Secret to Happiness Could also be the Answer to Better Finances

A Harvard Study on the Secret to Happiness Could also be the Answer to Better Finances

14 May, 2021


An 80-year study at Harvard managed to answer the question “what is the secret to happiness?” but on second look it could also be the same secret to healthy spending habits.

So what is the secret to happiness? You may find inspiration from the participants in the Harvard Study of Adult Development — one of the longest-running studies on happiness.

The project followed 724 men since they were teenagers in 1938. The group consisted of men from various economic and social backgrounds, from Boston’s poorest neighborhoods to Harvard undergrads. (President John F. Kennedy was even part of the original group.) Over the years, the researchers collected all kinds of health information, and every two years they asked members questions about their lives and their mental and emotional wellness.

They found that specific traits and behaviors were linked with increased levels of happiness across the entire group. One of the strongest associations was between happiness and close relationships like spouses, family, friends, and social circles.

“The surprising finding is that our relationships and how happy we are in our relationships has a powerful influence on our health,” said Robert Waldinger, director of the study, a psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital and a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. “Taking care of your body is important but tending to your relationships is a form of self-care too. That, I think, is the revelation.”

The validation and security gained from close personal relationships means less energy wasted on the wrong things. More focus on those relationships means more positive thinking and therefore overall happiness.

“Personal connection creates mental and emotional stimulation, which are automatic mood boosters, while isolation is a mood buster,” says Dr. Waldinger.

But what if this principle could translate to your financial habits as well?

Dr. Waldinger’s study struck a chord with me. As a Gen-Z living in Boston post-college, I know firsthand how hard it can be to stay socially active on a budget. Almost every outing with friends in the city includes getting food, drinks, and Ubers (at the bare minimum). With all the noise on social media today, we can all admit to suffering from a certain degree of FOMO (fear of missing out), so we go out Friday and Saturday and spend and spend and spend just to feel included. On the surface these habits make our social lives feel active and full, but in reality, it’s a facade. We just do it to feel like we are more social than we are, and to get validation that those friendships are relevant.

A few weekends ago I was sitting on my couch with my best friend Emily watching a movie, we had just cooked dinner and decided to stay in. We didn’t post anything to our social media about it, we were just two people spending time together. That’s when it dawned on me that I didn’t need to spend money to attest our friendship. We could just sit on the couch and have just as much fun. It made me think back to all the shallow friendships I had in college, something most people can relate to. So often was it the case that the act of going out affirmed my friendships. The fact that I was out at a bar or a restaurant with a group of people was what proved to me and to the world that we were friends, nothing else. But with my closest friends like Emily, we had a closer and more personal relationship as a foundation, so we could go out and party if we wanted to, or we could do something so basic like cook dinner and our love for each other would still shine through.

This was key in realizing how much money I save when I’m spending time with the people that really matter. Dr. Waldinger found a link between strong relationships and long-term happiness, and I’m willing to propose that this connection can extend to long-term healthy personal finances. In secure relationships, money no longer has a role as a form of validation. We subconsciously use spending (and consequently social media) to validate our social lives, but the solid connections we form could be the simple answer to that.

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