Happiness = Loving Relationships

Harvard Men’s Study

In the late 1930s, researchers at Harvard University conceived of a project to understand happiness and personal success. Known as one of the longest running studies of all time, they began following the lives of 268 men who entered Harvard in the late 1930s up to the present day (most of them having passed-on by now), in order to understand what distinguishes the happiest from the least happy men. By 2009, George Vaillant, who directed the study for over 40 years, wrote an article in the Atlantic Monthly summarizing the conclusion of the study in one word: “love.”  He went on to say that our relationships with other people matter more to our happiness than anything else in the world. Happiness equals loving relationships.

What Sets Apart the Happiest People?

Many other studies have supported this conclusion. What sets apart the happiest people in the world is not wealth, beauty, talent, fame, achievement, IQ, fitness or any of a myriad of variables you can name. Only one factor is predictive of happiness–the strength of our personal relationships. Happy people have strong, positive, and loving relationships. Positive social interactions literally produce chemical endorphins in the brain that reduce anxiety, depression and increase our well-being, make us feel happy and good about ourselves and life.

How often do we erroneously assume that mastering these other outcomes will automatically lead to happiness? It reminds me of the story of an army slashing their way through a heavy jungle. Eventually, someone climbs to the top of a tall tree, looks around, and hollers back to the rest of the men. “We’re in the wrong jungle.” Someone on the ground shouts to him, “Shut up! We’re making great progress.”

I don’t want to suggest that happiness is the only outcome in life that matters. However, I do want to say that most of us want to be happy and understanding the correlation between happiness and positive and loving relationships points us in the right direction.

How to Have More Loving Relationships

So, how do we have more positive and loving relationships? Do they just happen? Are they a function of being with the “right” people. The answer to these last two questions is “no.” People who are in positive social relationships take responsibility. They do things to build and strengthen their relationships. Here are some examples:

  • Greet others with a “Hi,” “Good morning,” or “It’s good to see you.”
  • Smile and look people in the eye.
  • Call people by name.
  • Take the initiative; don’t wait for others to speak up.
  • Make small talk by bringing up easy topics that you and others can relate to: weather, pets, events, sports, weekend activities, etc.
  • Get outside yourself and be interested. “What do you have going on today?” “How are you feeling about such and such?” “How did such and such go last night?”
  • Ask how you can support others. “What is going on today? How can I support you?” or, “What do you need from me.”
  • Be a good listener. Ask questions that begin with who, what, where, when, how, or why, that encourage others to open up. Keep drawing them out. Don’t be afraid of pauses. Continue to show interest by giving encouraging feedback–nod your head, say “uh-huh,” “really,” etc.
  • If with family members or close friends, give hugs or reach out and touch someone.
  • Be present mentally and not just physically. Put aside distractions to really see and be with someone.
  • Seek out those who are off by themselves.
  • Give a compliment, build others up. Take it upon yourself to help people feel good about themselves.
  • Do acts of kindness.
  • Refuse to gossip or talk about others behind their backs.
  • Respond positively rather than ignore or argue with little comments. “There is a bird on the window sill.” “There sure is. What beautiful colors.”

Elicit Goodwill

I could go on. This list is far from comprehensive. The point is that these acts elicit goodwill and rewarding responses from others. They put the responsibility on you to build positive and loving relationships with others. Such acts make you a “giver” rather than “taker” in your personal/social relationships. They start a positive, expansive cycle in which others enjoy being with you and naturally want to give to you in positive ways. These positive interactions produce not only interpersonal consequences but bio-chemical as well. Your brain releases endorphins that result in greater feelings of joy and well-being and eventually leads to positive and loving relationships.

Take Responsibility

Too often we become caught up in keeping score, paying attention to what others are doing or not doing to contribute to the relationship, which puts us on a downward, victim spiral. We become critical and negative and others respond to us in kind. The cycle becomes self-perpetuating. But at least we get to blame it on someone else.

DON’T GO THERE. Take responsibility for the quality of your relationships. Practice making positive choices, doing kind and loving acts that you know will lift and bless others. And trust that what you give will eventually return to bless you as well.

So join the conversation. When I write I like to think that we are community of people supporting one another in this journey of life. What are your thoughts? Or what might you do this week to create more positive relationships with those you love?

Learn more about happiness by visiting our blog post What Science Teaches Us About Happiness. 



  1. MerlinJenson`

    Once again you have given us something valuable. As always insightful..
    Our family has been blessed by your sharing.

  2. Fearghal Ryan

    I attended a talk recently by the famous British Psychologist Prof. Adrian Furnham, entitled “Happiness and Emotional Intelligence”. When asked a question in the Q&A by a member of the audience, about summing up what he felt one could do to live happier lives, the first tip he gave was to invest in your relationships (the other two were good, fulfilling work, especially for me, and investing in your health).

    Good article!

    • Roger Allen

      Thank you for sharing, Ryan. This seems to be a pretty universal conclusion among psychologists, particularly those who study wellness and emotional health.

  3. Olawale Oluwabunmi

    This is really great. I’m the funny type, the type people will always want to be with, and I never thought of what I want rather I thought of how to make people around me happy even when I’m not happy. Recently, due to some problems, I started thinking that maybe it was because I never took things seriously, I just take things like ” whatever will happened to me, I will bear them as long as people around me are happy”. This thought of mine has really been making me look at the world with a different perspective, I now think too much of what to do, how to do and when to do which was different from the way I used to do things before, and this started affecting me and it’s still affecting me now; I now see myself been too low among people, I now talk less or talk too slow with no sense of confidence, believing in oneself, independently dependent in oneself, in short, I do things now like am nobody. Through this article of yourself, I now realize that there are some certain steps that a man takes to be happy and that is, making people around him happy because by doing so you are also making yourself happy and people will not only think of you as a person but the person that you can be with all the time without feeling bad about yourself or sad. Thanks Dr.
    I have two questions that bothers me Dr. which I will be happy if you can reply with solutions, which are: Do I have to forget my own personal feelings to make others happy, and do I have to keep sacrificing even when I don’t fill comfortable doing it?

    • Roger Allen

      Hi Olawale,

      Thank you for your comment. Let me see if I can respond to your comment as well as questions. Perhaps your sense of humor is a gift, if people want to be around you because you make them happy. If so, I hope you don’t become so serious or self-conscious that you give this up. It sounds like you have, recently, and that you are not happy. You’ve become so serious that that you’ve lost some self-confidence. If this is the case, then I’d encourage you to recapture your humor and use it to make yourself and others happy.

      Regarding your other questions–you should not have to forget about your own feelings or sacrifice your needs in order to make other people happy. I’m not sure of everything that you are referring to here, but you have to take good care of yourself (needs and feelings) in your relationships as well as accommodate and try to make others happy. Good relationships have a give and take to them. There is a balance in giving and receving. If this is not the case, something is amiss. You should not feel bad about exploring what this is and even identifying your expectations in your relationships. What do you need? Have you communicated it? Do others respect it? It is great that you can be funny, but you also have the right to be in relationships in which people give back. I hope this helps. I don’t really know you’re situation.


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