The role of relationships in happiness


We tend to reach for happiness as one of our goals, whether consciously or subconsciously. A Harvard study that follows men over the course of their lives from their teenage years has been running since 1938, and provides many insights, but primarily – fame and fortune don’t cut it.

Secrets to health, happiness and long life

The study began in 1938 with 724 teenage boys – 268 attending Harvard and 456 from Boston’s poorest neighbourhoods. As you can see it’s a stark contrast. At a glance, the 268 are far likelier to be the men who succeed in life, who achieve great wealth, become famous, and live “successful” lives. And therefore they should be the happier men, the healthy ones, who live longer – right?

That wasn’t how it played out. It turns out that the single most important factor to people’s happiness was the quality of their relationships. And this, in turn, had effects on people’s health. Those with a community, who had good quality relationships, who felt like they could count on friends or family even if they bickered half the time, were healthier, both physically and mentally.

Happiness is…

So what does it actually mean to be happy?


Credit: Bubamara [GFDL or CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The biochemistry of happiness is made up of a cocktail of hormones. The most well-known of these form a lovely little acronym: DOSE.

Dopamine is the feel-good hormone released when we meet our goals.

Oxytocin is the bonding hormone that we get from social interactions, hugging and pets.

Serotonin is the happy hormone that is made when we go into the sun.

Endorphins are what make us happy after exercise, and play a less well known role in social bonding.

On the other side of the coin from happiness, you have stress, which is caused by activation of the HPA axis (or hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis). Continuous activation of stress hormones can weaken the immune system, making us vulnerable to disease. But social interactions have the power to suppress the HPA axis, thereby reducing stress. So if you’re with a friend in a stressful situation, you’re less likely to feel stressed. Hugs are also a powerful way of releasing stress – your body releases oxytocin on physical contact.


Oxytocin is released on physical contact. Comic credit: Catana

The importance of quality over quantity

From hunter-gatherer days to modern society, social connectedness has always played an important role in helping people to overcome life’s challenges. But social connectedness is not equal to the number of people you know, or the number of Facebook friends you have. Social media is sometimes used to take the place of face-to-face interaction, but this often passive engagement is no substitute for picking up the phone or grabbing a coffee together.

In our fast-paced age of technology, the quality of relationships is decreasing as people are more interested in their phones than in the people they are with. Families are also far more likely to be spread across the globe, and cannot spend as much time together. And thus there are many more people who feel lonely in the world today. This not only makes people less happy, but it also makes them more vulnerable to disease due to continuous activation of the HPA axis. As the Harvard study’s director, Robert Waldinger, says: “Loneliness kills. It’s as powerful as smoking or alcoholism.”

No man is an island

As the second generation of the study begins, researchers are hoping to illuminate more of the factors that affect aging over the course of a person’s life. Since the participants will be made up of the children of the first generation study, the researchers will have insight into factors that played a role in people’s childhoods, as well as factors that played a role from adulthood.

In the meantime, we can learn to be more intentional about how we spend our time, and how we keep in touch with friends and family. Because after all, building those relationships is what makes us happy, far more than any of the other things we may be chasing. As Waldinger points out, “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.” So pick up the phone, organise a coffee, actively engage with your circle. It’ll make everyone happier.

“No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main”
~John Donne


One thought on “The role of relationships in happiness

  1. Pingback: Reaching for mental fitness | Science Accessibly


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