What Makes a Good Life? A Family History Perspective

The key to healthy aging is relationships, relationships, relationships

The Harvard Study of Adult Development is one of the world’s longest studies of adult life. Since the study began, researchers have collected in data on participants’ health trajectories, their relationships, their careers, and their adjustment to aging. The results were surprising.

Harvard study, almost 80 years old, has proved that embracing community helps us live longer, and be happier Mineo 2017

The original sample of participants were all male (recruited from Harvard in the 1930s and 40s when it was still an all-male college). Over time the research expanded to include a cohort of all-male Boston inner-city residents, the wives of the participants were also included. 19 of the original participants are still alive, and the study has expanded to the offspring of the original participants. 

The findings revealed that relationships and how happy we are in our relationships has a powerful influence on our health.

These ties protect people from life’s discontents, help to delay mental and physical decline, and are better predictors of long and happy lives than social class, IQ, or even genes. That finding proved true across the board among both the Harvard men and the inner-city participants. Mineo 2017

View the current director, Robert Waldinger, talking about the study in his TED talk: What makes a good life? Lessons from the longest study on happiness

What links can we make to family history research? George Vaillant, who led the Harvard study from 1972 until 2004 emphasised the role of relationships, and came to recognise the crucial role they played in people living long and pleasant lives. Strong empathy and attachment are key factors in predicting healthy aging.

In a previous post, I highlighted research suggesting that children who scored highly on a scale measuring their knowledge of their family history and inter-generational family stories, displayed:

…higher levels of self-esteem, an internal locus of control (a belief in one’s own capacity to control what happens to him or her), better family functioning, lower levels of anxiety, fewer behavioral problems, and better chances for good outcomes if a child faces educational or emotional/behavioral difficulties (Duke 2013).

Vaillant found that a greater sense of control over one’s life and an adaptive coping style were among factors which foster positive physical and psychological aging. We should be very cautious in linking these two studies (different people studied, different time periods, locations and research focus), but, there are some themes which provide reason for optimism for family history research.

Duke and colleagues emphasised a strong sense of one’s place in a familial history as a personal past is linked with increased resilience, better adjustment, and improved chances of good clinical and educational outcomes. Not only could these outcomes be beneficial in the short term, they could also be positive predictors across the life course, contributing to healthy aging. Family history research could have a more powerful impact on our lives than we realise. This is an area worthy of further exploration; something we are following up on at the Anglo-Indian Project.


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