The Key to a Happy Life

The Key to a Happy Life

Do you consider yourself a rational person? So do I.

As a rational person, you've probably managed your life, to a large degree, by setting goals and knocking them down. This process, broadly speaking, consists of the following:

  • Observing the delta between your starting point and the objective
  • Identifying the terrain and considerations separating you from your objective
  • Selecting and employing the appropriate tactics to close the gap

We use this process for everything from going to the moon to quarterly business planning to grocery shopping (well… some of us, at least).

How many of us have thoughtfully applied this process to our central life objectives? Again, some of us.

Is your life objective to amass as much wealth as possible? To write the great American novel? To raise great children? To leave a lasting legacy – whatever that means?

I would argue that most of these goals, and similar ambitions, broadly support an overarching life objective that most of us seek without even articulating it to ourselves: to find happiness.

Generating wealth will provide the security and social status that will make me happy.

Writing incredible books will result in the recognition and sense of self-worth that’s always kept me from being truly happy.

Watching my kids grow into capable adults will make me happy.

My name on the side of that building will make me happy.

I would argue these “goals" are not goals but tactics we've chosen to pursue and achieve happiness. Here's the thing: if you choose the wrong tools to achieve your objective, you may meet with success, but it won’t be the success you set out to achieve. 

In the last few weeks, I've spent a good deal of quality time with my best friends and family. I spent a weekend with two of my best friends at a music festival and, only a few weeks later, with a dozen of my best mates at my US Naval Academy reunion. I spent time with my Dad. Then, I rolled from that into an extended trip home to spend time with family. I watched my niece play flag football and talked about life with my Mom in front of the fire.

These things make me happy. Not ecstatic or euphoric, but deeply satisfied. By any definition, I’ve felt happy over the past several weeks.

The science shows that if your goal is happiness, spending quality time with your people is the way to go.

Harvard University has been conducting the world's longest-running longitudinal study, ‘The Study of Adult Development,’ for over 80 years to identify precisely the tactics we've discussed. If the ultimate goal is to be happy, what tactical choices will get us there? Harvard scientists started tracking 268 college sophomores during the great depression to determine the causal factors leading to healthy and happy lives.

Spoiler alert: it ain't the prestigious career, the dream home, the fancy car, the attractive partner, or anything else most of us seem to focus on that will lead to a happy life. It's much simpler than that.

“Close relationships, more than money or fame, are what keep people happy throughout their lives, the study revealed. Deep and healthy relationships protect people from life’s stressors, delay mental and physical decline, and are better predictors of long and happy lives than social class, IQ, or even genes.”

Deep, close relationships with friends, family and significant others keep us happier and healthier. Period.

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

"It turns out that people who are more socially connected to family, to friends, to the community are happier, they're physically healthier, and they live longer than people who are less well connected," said Waldinger.

With that knowledge, it's no surprise that I have been notably happier these past few weeks than in the past. I've spent time with the people that matter most to me. We've spent quality time talking about life, sharing our anxieties, and quietly letting each other know – sometimes by presence alone – that we're here for each other.

As somewhat of a “striver,” I tend to fall into precisely the traps that I shouldn't. I immerse myself in work to the point of exhaustion. I fail to carve out time to call my friends. I decline to go on the boy's trip because – well – I've got a lot of stuff to do.

I know better than that, and the past few weeks were the reminder I needed.

So next time you’re wondering if you can swing a weekend at home – go. Plan a friend’s trip. Make the phone call. Be the friend and family member that you know you can be. Your happiness in life depends on it.

We know the answer to the question. All we have to do is act.