The (Rather Obvious) Secret to Happiness

By Jim Tonkowich Published on February 1, 2023

It’s hard to believe that 45 years ago at Park Street Church in Boston a couple of twenty-somethings said, “I do,” and began married life together.

While I admit to overstating Dottie’s and my marriage as “45 years of wedded bliss,” it has been 45 years of solid, consistent fulfillment and happiness. The good news is that we can probably expect more of the same for the next 45 years (or however many God gives us).

How so?

In the January 14-15 The Wall Street Journal, Robert Waldinger and Marc Schultz of the Harvard Study of Adult Development address the subject “The Real Secret of Lifelong Fulfillment.”

Begun in 1938, the Harvard Study is the world’s longest scientific study of happiness. It began by following the lives of the original group of 724 men adding, over the years, more than 1,300 of their male and female descendants. That’s three generations with an astonishingly high participation rate of 84%.

A Single Principle For Living

What have they learned in 85 years of research?

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“[I]f we had to take all 85 years of the Harvard Study,” they write, “and boil it down to a single principle for living, one life investment that is supported by similar findings across a variety of other studies, it would be this: Good relationships keep us healthier and happier. Period.”

Thus, they conclude, “If you want to make one decision to ensure your own health and happiness, it should be to cultivate warm relationships of all kinds.”

A Culture of Individualism and Loneliness

This is vital news in our culture of individualism and loneliness where fear of illness and death infect so many. Waldinger and Schultz write,

This finding makes sense in light of the growing evidence that loneliness is associated with greater sensitivity to pain, suppression of the immune system, diminished brain function and less effective sleep. Recent research has shown that for older people, loneliness is twice as unhealthy as obesity, and chronic loneliness increases a person’s odds of death in any given year by 26%.

They explain that an individual trying to survive alone thousands of years ago would live in a constant state of readiness, always alert to possible dangers. The fear of predators, of hostile people, and of accidental injuries resulted in constant stress which, in turn, resulted in poor mental and physical health. In a village, with others to care and comfort, stress abated and health improved.

“The same effects of loneliness continue today,” they state. While they don’t come out and say it, it’s clear from their findings that virtual relationships do not and cannot substitute for face-to-face, skin-to-skin relationships.

Concern For Your Health Can Make You Sick

In an article about “touch starvation,” WebMD notes,

When you don’t get enough physical touch, you can become stressed, anxious, or depressed. As a response to stress, your body makes a hormone called cortisol. This can cause your heart rate, blood pressure, muscle tension, and breathing rate to go up, with bad effects for your immune and digestive systems. These things can lead to worse quality of sleep and a higher risk of infections. Other medical conditions, including diabetes, asthma, and high blood pressure, may get worse. Long-term touch starvation could even trigger post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

I know of people who are still socially isolating out of fear of contracting COVID. The research indicates that their concern for their health is making them sick.

‘It Is Not Good That the Man Should Be Alone’

The Harvard Study merely confirms the truth that’s been sitting there in Scripture to the delight of brides and bridegrooms for centuries: “Then the Lord God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone’” (Genesis 2:18).

After bringing every sort of critter to the man who found in none of them a fit companion, God created woman. “Therefore,” Scripture tells us, “a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24).

With these words, not only was marriage born, but human community of every type: children, grandchildren, aunts, uncles, cousins, neighbors, friends. These represent not only the greatest riches of life, but, as the Harvard Study indicates, our greatest source of happiness.

People Need People — and We Need Jesus Christ

The Harvard Study and similar research show that Barbra Streisand had it right: “People who need people are the luckiest people in the world.” They’re also the happiest and the healthiest.

So call or, better yet, visit an old friend or a relative you haven’t seen in a while. Invite neighbors in for coffee or a glass of wine. Enjoy family meals. Volunteer. Join a small group. Hang out and chat with people after church instead of running to your car. Shake hands. Touch. Hug. Be present — in the flesh — to others. Keep working to strengthen your marriage. As 85 years of careful research tells us, “If you want to make one decision to ensure your own health and happiness, it should be to cultivate warm relationships of all kinds.” Above all, pray, cultivating your most important relationship: with Jesus Christ, the Source of all happiness.


James Tonkowich, a senior contributor to The Stream, is a freelance writer, speaker and commentator on spirituality, religion and public life. He is the author of The Liberty Threat: The Attack on Religious Freedom in America Today and Pears, Grapes, and Dates: A Good Life After Mid-Life. Jim serves as Director of Distance Learning at Wyoming Catholic College and is host of the college’s weekly podcast, “The After Dinner Scholar.”

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