The Key to Happiness

Aug 11, 2023 | Podcast

There is one thing that can make us all happier and healthier. Listen to this podcast to learn what researchers have found from the longest scientific study of happiness ever conducted.

Tony Schmitt: Hello, I’m Tony Schmitt, President and CEO at GreenUup Wealth Management. At GreenUp, our mission is to positively impact and transform people’s lives. We’re a wealth management firm that knows that money is a tool to get what we want out of life, but it doesn’t ultimately buy happiness. However, there is one thing that can make us happy. With me to talk about this one thing that can make us happy is Aaron Kirsch, GreenUp’s Chief Client Advocacy Officer. Hello, Aaron. Welcome and thanks for joining us.

Aaron Kirsch: Hello, Tony. I’m happy to be with you to talk about happiness.

Tony Schmitt: And this is a fun little flip of the script here because Aaron, you typically drive these podcasts and you’re the one interviewing folks. So, I appreciate letting me borrow in your captain’s chair as we dive into the topic today.

Aaron Kirsch: It’s my pleasure, Tony. This is going to be fun.

Tony Schmitt: Great Aaron, let’s dig in. Let’s start our discussion diving into a very interesting study known as the Harvard Study of Adult Development.

Aaron Kirsch: Right Tony. So, the Harvard Study of Adult Development is the longest scientific study of happiness ever conducted. It was initially called the Grant Study, and it began back in 1938. Until then, the majority of research about psychology focused on psychological disorders, but the researchers at Harvard University back then wanted to learn about what makes people thrive. So, they figured students at a prestigious university like Harvard would be good subjects to study.

They initially recruited 268 sophomores at Harvard. Half were students who attended Harvard with scholarships, and the other half were students who came from families of privilege. And the remarkable thing about this study is it was originally planned to last for only a decade, but it kept going and it followed these individuals for the rest of their lives. It’s now on its 85th year.

Tony Schmitt: Wow, that’s incredible- 85 years. So, it’s obviously a pretty large sample set that they were able to dig into. So, Aaron, there are other subjects in this study as well. Am I correct in that?

Aaron Kirsch: That’s right, Tony. Back in 1939, the Glueck study began tracking 456 teenage boys who were living in disadvantaged neighborhoods in Boston. The Glueck study set out to learn what life factors prevented delinquency. These two studies were later combined and included a total of 724 participants. The study included thousands of questions through questionnaires and in-person interviews with the participants and their families. They took hundreds of measurements, and they even took blood samples and did brain scans of the participants. It now includes over 1300 of the original participants’ daughters and sons. It’s the longest in-depth longitudinal study of human life ever conducted.

Tony Schmitt: Wow, that’s an incredibly large sample set. I do detect one flaw because if someone was taking blood samples from me, I don’t know how happy I’d be. But anyways, moving on from that, Aaron, let’s cut to the chase. What did this study find that’s the one thing that makes us happy?

Aaron Kirsch: Tony, to answer that question, I’m going to give you a quote from this book called The Good Life: Lessons from the World’s largest Scientific Study of Happiness. It’s by Dr. Robert Waldinger and Dr. Mark Schultz, who are the current leads of that Harvard study. And the quote is this: “If I had to take all 84 years of the Harvard study and boil it down to a single principle for living, good relationships keep us happier and healthier, period.”

The Harvard study looked at physical health, looked at mental health, it looked at longevity, career achievement, exercise, and healthy diets. And Tony, all these things do matter. But the one thing that continuously demonstrates broad and enduring importance is good relationships.

Tony Schmitt: I think that’s really interesting. Relationships are truly the foundation of our lives. Tell me a little bit more. What’s the reason that good relationships lead to ultimate happiness?

Aaron Kirsch: Tony, when you look at it from an anthropological viewpoint, human beings evolved to be highly social beings. When we look at advantages that we have, we don’t have certain advantages compared to other animals. We’re not fast. We don’t have sharp teeth. We’re not super strong and we don’t have thick protective fur coats. But we do have a few physical advantages. Those are hands with long thumbs so we can grab things. We have miniaturized hair and increased sweat glands that allows us to cool our bodies. That means we can run really far and sweat and cool our bodies so that we can go the distance.

And most importantly, we have advanced brains. Our brains give us language that allows us to communicate and spread new ideas. Our brains give us the ability to refine and create new tools. Our brains give us the ability to adapt to unstable, shifting environments, and to feel compassion and experience empathy. This allows us to work together and cooperate in groups. And this ultimately led to human survival. So just like our brains have evolved to reward us when we eat food, our brains reward us when we have positive interactions with others. This positive interaction tells our bodies that we’re safe. It increases our sense of wellbeing. And for survival, humans need nutrition, we need exercise, we need purpose, and we need each other.

Tony Schmitt: Aaron, we talk a lot about personal wellness and just the total wellness of people here at GreenUp, and you touched on how our brains and bodies evolve to want positive connections with others. What have researchers learned about the relationships between social connections and health?

Aaron Kirsch: Well, Tony, there’s a strong correlation between social connections and health in the Harvard study. Those with strong social connections just lived longer, and those findings are not unique to the Harvard study. There have been 148 studies in countries all over the world with over 300,000 participants across all age groups, genders, and ethnicities. And these studies all found that social connection increases the odds of living by 50%.

If we think back to prehistoric times, being alone was dangerous. Finding food, protection from predators- those types of things are easier in a group. If we’re alone, our bodies go into survival mode. It’s physically and mentally stressful. We have shallow sleep. We’re always on the alert. We’re desperately looking to find food. We just don’t face those same threats today in modern society, but our bodies react the same way to loneliness as our prehistoric ancestors.

And Tony, just three months ago, the Surgeon General of the United States released a new advisory calling attention to the public health crisis of loneliness, isolation, and lack of connection in the United States. Some of the findings that this Surgeon General’s warning sites are pretty extraordinary. Loneliness and isolation increase the risk for mental health challenges. It leads to a 29% increased risk of heart disease, 32% increased risk of stroke, 50% increased risk of dementia, and a 60% increased risk of premature death. Lacking social connection, Tony, is as dangerous as smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day.

Tony Schmitt: Wow, that is absolutely incredible. And Aaron, it’s just really scary to think about the impact that that’s having on people in society on the whole, not only dealing with mental health, but let’s just look at the last few years when our country was locked down and kids weren’t allowed in schools. If you look at the statistics from this study, It’s staggering, really, the impact that this can have.

Aaron Kirsch: That’s so true, Tony. Loneliness was a growing problem in the United States, but the pandemic certainly made it worse.

Tony Schmitt: So Aaron, digging in a little bit deeper, what are the reasons social connections have such a profound influence on our health?

Aaron Kirsch: Well, Tony, research shows that social connections influence our health outcomes in three different ways. The first one is biology. Social connections affect whether our stress hormones are high or low, it can influence our inflammation levels, and it can even influence gene expression. Social connections influence our psychology because if we’re connected, we have a sense of purpose. If we’re not connected, we don’t. It affects our stress, it affects our feeling of safety, our resilience, and our hopefulness. And finally, the third influence that social connections have is through our behaviors. It influences our social activity, our nutrition, our sleep, whether we smoke or not, and any kinds of treatment in terms of psychological treatment or speaking with therapists.

Tony Schmitt: Yeah. Aaron, thanks for sharing that. Now circling back a bit, we mentioned at the beginning of the podcast that money doesn’t buy happiness, yet our culture truly encouraged a relentless pursuit of money, achievement and status. That’s the American way. There seems to be a bit of a disconnect here, and as you know, I’m as ambitious and driven towards achievement as anybody. So why is that?

Aaron Kirsch: Well, Tony, those three things, money, achievement, and status, are important to our culture because, well, let’s look at money. Money allows us to acquire the things we need, so money really is important. Achievements give us goals to pursue and gives us a sense of purpose. And status gives us social respect. And these three things are all quantifiable. Like we can figure out how much money we have, how many achievements we’ve had, how many followers we have on social media, but they don’t directly give us happiness. We live in a consumer culture where advertisements entice us to buy things. If we only had that new car or that new smartphone or that house, we’d be happy.

And these things do provide happiness, but it’s only temporary. Once it’s incorporated into our lives, those positive feelings that we got when we acquired those things, it wears off pretty quickly, and then we’re looking on to the next thing.

Tony Schmitt: Aaron, I guess that’s where we get an adrenaline spike or a dopamine hit that is going to be temporary versus ultimately driving true happiness, right?

Aaron Kirsch: That’s right, Tony. The dopamine hit is temporary, but it doesn’t give us lasting satisfaction.

Tony Schmitt: So Aaron, again, at Greenup, we talk a lot about total wellness and how we can help be an important part of that for folks. However, as wealth managers. Our real focus is on financial wellness as part of each person’s overall wellness. How is financial wellness important to people?

Aaron Kirsch: Well, Tony, Financial Wellness is important in that it provides us with our basic needs, and it provides us with a certain sense of freedom. Two researchers named Angus Deatman and Nobel Prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman did this study where they found that money increases our happiness up to a point, but it then plateaus. When you think about not having enough money, that could be stressful. When money is scarce, it means that certain basic needs like shelter and food and healthcare are hard to come by, and that is really stressful. So, money does bring some tangible benefits. It can aleve that particular stress.

And then money does provide choices and freedom. We can use our money for fun things, for adventures. We can help out our family members, et cetera. But up to a certain point, money does not increase happiness. When you think about billionaires and millionaires, billionaires are not necessarily happier than millionaires, and studies have shown that one year after winning the lottery, lottery winners are not happier than the rest of us.

Tony Schmitt: Yeah, that’s some excellent insight, and it makes a lot of sense. Now, Aaron, earlier you discussed the Surgeon General’s initiative to reduce isolation. Clearly this is a growing problem in our society, which is truly exasperated by the COVID 19 pandemic. What can people do to connect with others?

Aaron Kirsch: That’s a great question, Tony, and I’ll give you a few examples of ways we can connect with others. One is by volunteering. When you volunteer, you’re going to meet other like-minded people. You can join affinity or hobby groups for some of the interests that you have and meet other people who have those same interests.

Just talking to strangers- talking to that barista at the at the coffee shop, talking to your mail carrier, talking to a person in line at the grocery store- this is just a simple way to make a connection with another human being. You can also cultivate relationships with your coworkers. And just ask anybody, somebody how they’re doing. Take real interest and give that someone your attention, because being genuinely curious about others, about what their background is, what their life and history is, getting to understand who they are and where they came from, what’s important to them- these are great ways to strengthen existing relationships and create new relationships.

Tony Schmitt: Aaron, I think it’s important to keep in mind that it’s crucial to make sure we’re having the right folks in our circle- people that have a positive mindset, that have similar goals, and people that just have the same moral compass. Diversity is super important within those relationships, but it is crucial to make sure that you have people that are always pumping good gas into your life versus those that are sucking the life out as well.

Aaron Kirsch: That’s a great point, Tony. There’s that saying that we’re the average of the five people we spend the most time with. If that’s true, then we should choose to be around the people we aspire to be.

Tony Schmitt: And Aaron, we obviously have our friends, our family, and acquaintances that, maybe it’s a new relationship, maybe it’s been since birth. What can we do to strengthen those existing relationships we have?

Aaron Kirsch: There are some great suggestions in that book I mentioned before, The Good Life: Lessons from the World’s Largest Scientific Study of Happiness by the current leaders of the Harvard study, and they use some terms that we can understand in the world of investing. They mentioned that since good relationships are responsible for our health and happiness, devoting our time and attention to those relationships is our best investment. And they point out that the English language uses financial terminology when using these words and phrases. They talk about how we spend time, how we pay attention.

So why do we use those terms? Well, time and attention are the most valuable things that everyone possesses, whether you’re rich or poor. Studies have shown that close to half of the time we’re thinking about something other than what we are actually doing, and in our modern world of smartphones and social media and 24 hour news cycles, that contributes to our wandering minds. We’re just overstimulated, Tony. There’s too much information competing for our attention. So, if we look at our relationships, maybe our relationships are not getting our full attention. Maybe we need to pay attention. Maybe we need to spend more time with the people who are important to us. So, to strengthen our relationships, spend the time. Pay attention to those we care about. Invest in connections.

When it comes to money, Tony, we can use our money to strengthen our relationships. We can use our money to travel, to visit friends and family who don’t live close. We can take vacations with friends and family, or we can use vacations to meet new people. We can have events and dinner parties. We just need to prioritize and work on our relationships to improve them. Just like anything in life, we get better the more we practice.

Tony Schmitt: So, Aaron, if I was going to sum a lot of that up, it sounds like be present in the moment. Life takes us in a lot of directions, and life is just busy these days, which is fine, but when we’re with our loved ones, again, friends, family, coworkers, be present in the moment, right?

Aaron Kirsch: Be present. Pay attention to the people who are important to us, put down that smartphone and really connect with them.

Tony Schmitt: That sounds great. Absolutely. So, Aaron, I’m going to ask a question that really hits home with me here. You know, having one son that’s in college and another that’s in high school, and I’m very fortunate to coach a lot of youth across a couple sports here locally in St.Louis, so for those of us that have a lot of young people in our lives, be it children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, mentees, young people you’re coaching, how can we help young people learn about the importance of relationships?

Aaron Kirsch: That’s a really important question, Tony, because we want kids to be happy. We always want them to grow up to be happy. And it’s weird. There was a survey of millennials recently where they were asked what the important life goals were for them, and for over 80% of them, their goal was to be rich. And 50% of them, their goal was to be famous. Well, what if we taught children in their formative years about, not the importance of being successful and rich, but about the importance of relationships, so they can be happier and healthier. Maybe we need to redirect their priorities, and some of these ways we can do that is to encourage them to have face-to-face relationships. Smartphones: they’re useful for social contact and they’re fun and they’re entertaining, but they’re not an equal substitute for in-person interactions. You can’t get social cues from text messages or through a screen. You can’t pick up on nonverbal communication. So virtual spaces are not the same as physical spaces. You’re not going to have a deep relationship through a screen. So, encourage kids to have focused time, have them get directed attention, and have them have more face-to-face interactions with friends.

As adults, we’re just as guilty. How many times do we go to our smartphone when we have a spare minute of the day, or we’re standing in line at the grocery store? And Tony, when it comes to social media, social media isn’t terrible. It’s good to communicate when you can’t be face-to-face, but it’s good to teach kids to communicate with others through social media and not just passively scroll through pages on their smartphones. Just observing leads to comparing ourselves to others, and we know that observations and comparisons to others is something that leads to unhappiness. So just like we teach kids about health and exercise, we should teach social fitness to young people in our lives. After all, every parent wants their kids just to be happy and good relationships are the key to happiness.

Tony Schmitt: And Aaron, to circle back, you talked about not having a desire to be rich and famous. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with having those as goals and drivers, but I think taking it it a step further- why you want to be rich, what you’re going to be able to do to impact people’s lives with that wealth and success that you find when you do reach a certain level of stature, really the impact you are going to be able to have with your voice by reaching that level of social stature as well. And if I could add one additional piece here, you’re talking about social media not being all bad. Social media can be absolutely amazing and fantastic, and something we talk a lot about inside of our organization is to be very careful on what you’re consuming. What we’re consuming on social media or through reading or anything else is just as important as what we’re feeding our body, because it’s what we’re feeding our mind. So, if we’re bringing good, positive educational information into our brain through social media, it can be great. if we’re bringing garbage with just negativity and noise, that’s also going to help fuel our negativity because our environment is so impactful.

Aaron Kirsch: Well said, Tony.

Tony Schmitt: So, Aaron, as we wrap up here, reflecting back on this study, share some closing thoughts and summarize this a bit for us.

Aaron Kirsch: Sure, Tony. Well, going back to the leaders of that Harvard study, Dr. Waldinger and Dr. Schultz, they point out how our society has contradictory thoughts about time. We never have enough time to do everything we want, but we always think that in the future we’ll have time. There’ll be plenty of time to do that later. But we really never have that time to do it later. We should really focus on the present.

When we think about time, how do we spend our time when we really don’t know how much time we have left? What do we pay attention to? And they suggest that we need to pay attention to our relationships because good relationships improve our happiness and our health, and what can be more important than that?

The leaders of this Harvard study tell us to practice what they call “radical curiosity.” And what they mean by that is we can become too self-focused and forget about the experiences of others, and it can be a joy to lose ourselves in the experience of another person, and we can gain knowledge from that other person. Curiosity leads to understanding and understanding leads to joy in life. When we understand the experiences of another person, this is where social connections really happen.

Tony, I want to close with another quote from the book, The Good Life, and this is just a brilliant way I think we should end this podcast. Here’s the quote: “The good life is not a destination. It is the path itself, and the people who are walking it with you.”

Tony Schmitt: Aaron, that’s great and thanks for sharing that. I’m going to challenge everyone here as we wrap up today. Think of your current relationships. How are you going to maximize that and impact someone that you care about and their life a little bit more? And a second challenge there would be: go build a new relationship. Make someone smile. And I promise you, by doing that, you’re going to feel more fulfilled, making greater impact, and driving your own happiness as well. So, for Aaron Kirsch and the entire team here at GreenUp Wealth Management, I’m Tony Schmitt. Thanks for listening.

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