The Happiness Paradox

John Marsden grew up in a wealthy family.

He was a brilliant student who went to Harvard, graduated from law school and eventually fulfilled his dream of becoming a successful lawyer.

John got married in his 30s and had children.

Leo DeMarco also went to Harvard where he dreamed of becoming a famous writer. But after college he became a high school teacher and loved working with his students so much that his dream never came true.

DeMarco was a teacher for 40 years. He never made very much money but he found his job fulfilling and loved his work and students.

Marsden and DeMarco1 were two of the original members of the longest study on happiness ever conducted. The results of that study were outlined in The Good Life by Robert Waldinger and Marc Schultz.

Each year researchers from Harvard would interview the subjects, send them questionnaires and conduct medical tests to discover what makes us happy.

Marsden was one of the most successful business professionals in the entire study. He was brought up in a privileged family and caught some lucky breaks along the way as well.

By all outward measures, Marsden had it all. Yet according to the researchers and his own words, he was one of the least happy people in the whole study.

DeMarco made a lot less money than Marsden and lived a relatively simple life. He was just a normal guy.

Following one of his many interviews over the years, one of the study’s researchers even wrote, “I came away from our visit with the impression that the subject was, well… somewhat ordinary.”

This ordinary guy was also one of the happiest people they studied.

So why was John miserable while Leo was happy as a clam?

In a word — relationships.

Marsden was a successful lawyer but struggled in his marriage and alienated his children. He was more concerned with himself and his career accomplishments than creating bonds with others. Eventually, he got divorced and remarried in his 60s but never truly worked on establishing good relationships. His career was so important that he avoided dating for long stretches to focus on his law practice.

DeMarco, on the other hand, fostered relationships with family, friends, co-workers and students. Leo wasn’t rich in a financial sense but he lived a rich life. His work was meaningful because he enjoyed the people he worked with and the sense of satisfaction he received from helping others.

The main takeaway from the 80+ years of the Harvard Study of Adult Development is that good relationships can make us healthier and happier. The authors of the book explain:

People who are more connected to family, to friends, and to community, are happier and physically healthier than people who are less well connected. People who are more isolated than they want to be find their health declining sooner than people who feel connected to others. Lonely people also live shorter lives.

The people who were the most satisfied in their relationships at age 50 were the healthiest (mentally and physically) at age 80.

I have to admit that I love these types of books and studies about happiness. They help reinforce the paradox of happiness in that the stuff we think will make us happy often doesn’t.

Happiness is a complicated topic because when you ask people what they want out of life the answers typically involve career achievements, financial goalposts or status.

A good job or a high salary or a certain level of fame are easy to quantify and define. Relationships are not. Money has a value you can attach to it. It’s impossible to quantify the value of strong relationships in your life.

Making yourself happier can also be counterintuitive. Oliver Burkman summed up the research on the subject in his book, The Antidote:

The effort to try to feel happy is often precisely the thing that makes us miserable. And that it is our constant efforts to eliminate the negative – insecurity, uncertainty, failure, or sadness – that is what causes us to feel so insecure, anxious, uncertain, or unhappy. They didn’t see this conclusion as depressing, though. Instead, they argued that it pointed to an alternative approach, a ‘negative path’ to happiness, that entailed taking a radically different stance towards those things that most of us spend our lives trying hard to avoid. It involved learning to enjoy uncertainty, embracing insecurity, stopping trying to think positively, becoming familiar with failure, even learning to value death.

Life is messy. Sometimes leaning into the mess head-on can actually improve your well-being.

The other problem with trying to make yourself happier is getting exactly what you thought you wanted doesn’t automatically help.

Steve Shapiro performed a study on adults that set big goals for themselves. More than 40% of people in the study claimed that achieving their goals failed to make them any happier or left them disillusioned when it didn’t help. Nearly 1 in 5 said the pursuit of their goal destroyed significant relationships in their lives.

A rich life requires some give and take. The hard part about striking the right balance between inward and outward success is there is no handbook for this sort of thing.

Sometimes we don’t realize the important stuff until it’s too late.

As the Harvard Study participants reached the late stages of their lives, many reflected on their biggest regrets. The answers won’t shock you:

  • I wish I hadn’t wasted so much time.
  • I wish I hadn’t worried so much.
  • I wish I’d spent more time with my family.
  • I didn’t pay enough attention to my kids.
  • So much of my time was spent doing things that weren’t important to me.

No one ever looks back on their life and wishes they would have worked longer hours or made enough money to buy more material possessions or gone into a field that would have maximized their earning power.

There is no secret to finding happiness. A good life means different things to different people and people are complicated.

But the research shows that healthy relationships, a healthy lifestyle and enough money to make you comfortable (but not too much) are a good start to finding more happiness in life.

Further Reading:
My New Goal in Life: Avoid a Mid-Life Crisis

1Not their real names for obvious reasons.

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