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There was a recent survey of millennials asking what they considered to be important life goals. Over 80% said that getting rich was a major goal while 50% said that ‘becoming famous’ was top of their priority list. Getting rich and/or famous should be a bi-product of a life well lived and the arbitrary measure of happiness does not hinge on either of those two things. If it did the rich and famous would be dancing in the streets all night. Before pushing harder to achieve more and setting down this lonely and unfulfilling road, take a word of advice from our elders. As the saying goes ‘those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it’. Having a moment of clarity now will save you a tonne of heartache and unhappiness in the future.

A Study of Happiness

The Harvard Study of Adult Development may be the longest study of adult life that’s ever been conducted. For 75 years, Harvard tracked the lives of 724 men (and later on their wives), year after year, asking about their work, their home lives and their health. There was no way of knowing how each of those lives was going to turn out but the data and patterns that revealed themselves showed strong correlations in a number of areas. The first is that social connections are really good for us, and that loneliness kills. It turns out that people who are more socially connected to family, to friends, to community, are happier. They’re physically healthier, and they live longer than people who are less well connected. The experience of loneliness turns out to be toxic. People who are more isolated than they want to be from others find that they are less happy, their health declines earlier in midlife, their brain functioning declines sooner and they live shorter lives.

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You can be lonely in a crowd and you can be lonely in a marriage, but the second big lesson that was learned is that it’s not just the number of friends you have, and it’s not whether or not you’re in a committed relationship, but it’s the quality of your close relationships that matters. It turns out that living in the midst of conflict is really bad for our health. High-conflict marriages, for example, without much affection, turn out to be very bad for our health, perhaps worse than getting divorced. And living in the midst of good, warm relationships is protective.

The third big lesson learned about relationships and our health is that good relationships don’t just protect our bodies, they protect our brains. It turns out that being in a securely attached relationship to another person in your 80s is protective. The people who are in relationships where they really feel they can count on the other person in times of need, those people’s memories stay sharper longer. And the people in relationships where they feel they really can’t count on the other one, those are the people who experience earlier memory decline. And those good relationships, they don’t have to be smooth all the time. Some octogenarian couples could bicker with each other day in and day out, but as long as they felt that they could really count on the other when the going got tough, those arguments didn’t take a toll on their memories.

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You may be reading this and thinking that this information is obvious but knowing something and putting it into practice is a challenge in itself. We’re human. What we’d really like is a quick fix, something we can get that’ll make our lives good and keep them that way. Relationships are messy and they’re complicated and the hard work of tending to family and friends, it’s not sexy or glamorous. It’s also lifelong. It never ends. If you’re serious about change you have to go through uncomfortable situations and stop trying to dodge the process. It’s the only way to learn and grow.

It all starts with your mind which can seem like an unapproachable concept and yet your mind is totally within your control. Your mind is both an unstoppable force and an inescapable curse so understanding it should be your main priority. You are the master of your universe, but knowing this is just the first step. There is no avoidance of hard work. Humans are pleasure seeking creatures and as stated above we’ll do anything for a quick fix. The argument for working on yourself is that it’ll lead to more pleasure in the future. Start by making small changes in your daily routine. Do one press-up, write one paragraph, call one close friend etc. Eventually the small changes snowball and become life long habits that you wish you started earlier.

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