You’re already aware of the usual phrases like “money can’t buy happiness” and “don’t live to work”. It’s clear that although money and a stable job contribute to a good life, they’re not necessarily the key to a happy life.  

Robert Waldinger, director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development set off with a team to discover what that key truly was. Over the course of a 75-year study – known as the Grant and Glueck study – Harvard researchers tracked the physical and emotional health of two groups of men as they went through life. One group consisted of more than 450 men growing up in low-income in Boston from 1939 to 2014. The other group consisted of more than 260 male Harvard graduates who finished school between 1939 and 1944.

Throughout the study, researchers studied the participants’ overall health with medical tests, surveys, and in-person interactions. They took note of the status of the men’s emotional well-being in addition to their physical health.

According to Waldinger, they found that good relationships were a major factor in whether people led happy and healthy lives. No matter what else was going on in their lives, connections with others took precedence over all else. He notes that the biggest revelation was that taking care of your body is important, but tending to your relationships is a form of self-care too. Robert maintains to this day, that the clearest message from this 75-year study is this:

Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period.

Robert Waldinger with his wife smiling on a bench
Robert Waldinger with his wife Jennifer Stone. Rose Lincoln/Harvard Staff Photographer

For many people who’ve gone through a tough time, this fact is hardly surprising. Being great at your job may boost your self-esteem, and financial safety makes a huge difference when needed. But what carries you through life’s lowest points is the people (or even the pets). When you can rely on others in your life to have your back —and when you do the same for them—you’re in a great position to thrive in life.

This doesn’t necessarily mean having a perfect romantic partner, a Hallmark-approved family, or a group of twenty closest friends. In fact, it doesn’t even mean you need to have a packed social schedule. All that matters is that the close relationships you do have are dependable and fulfilling. It’s all about quality over quantity.

Researchers have found that having a great support system in your life helps you to feel more relaxed, and helps to calm your nervous system. It also keeps your brain healthy and helps reduce and prevent physical pain. Research also suggests that those who experience loneliness may be prone to a premature death. 

According to Inc, some researchers see the path to success in this endeavor as twofold. George Valliant, a psychiatrist who directed the study for decades, instructs people to focus on love. But also to find “a way of coping with life that does not push love away.”

It’s no surprise that Valliant mentioned this, because as most of us know, asking for help and relying on others can be terrifying. It can be tempting to push others away and retreat into unhealthy habits and self-imposed isolation when we’re upset. But as vulnerable as accepting help can feel, it’s incredibly rewarding, and it can lead to a much happier and healthier life.

In today’s busy world, with thousands of distractions screaming for your attention at any given second, it can be tough to know what most deserves your energy. The next time you’re feeling overwhelmed and not sure what to prioritize first, focus on love and healthy connections. Quality relationships hold our lives together. It’s more likely to set you up for joy than anything else.

Think about how you can show someone close to you that you appreciate their presence in your life. Talk to them today, see if there’s anything you can do to make them feel loved. If you need more inspiration, take 12 minutes to watch the amazing TED Talk by Robert Waldinger on this insightful study.