In Happiness Study, Harvard Agrees With the Bible

Have you read anything about the study that Harvard has been running for 80 years, measuring health and happiness over people’s lifetimes?

The study began in the 1930s and has continued today by collecting data on the children of the original participants. So far, the data has revealed a few strong trends showing what makes for a happy life. One interesting observation is that these findings back up what Jesus and the New Testament teach.

Here are five ways to cultivate happiness from the study’s findings, correlated with words straight from the Bible …

Your quality of life, especially as you age, depends on your relationships.

A huge finding of the study is that people who have good, stable relationships and support systems at age 50 are usually in better health at age 80 than people who lack good relationships.

Jesus also advocates for stable relationships and community. He sends people two by two (Luke 10:1). He formed a community of 12 men (His apostles) with whom he traveled, taught, and experienced life. And he says that the greatest act of love is to lay down your life for your friends (John 15:13), along with the commandment to love your neighbor as yourself (Mark 12:31).

When it comes to the long term, happiness is the ability to eat and drink moderately without relying on alcohol or tobacco.

The study data shows that people who led generally happy and well-balanced lives could do a 180-degree turn if they started relying on alcohol mid-life. The inverse was also true — people who were “train wrecks” due to alcohol abuse could turn their lives around halfway through and find happiness and balance.

Jesus would agree that moderation is key, as he preaches detachment from the world and attachment to God instead. First of all, he warns repeatedly about drunkenness — and so does Peter. He asks, what profit is there to gain the world but lose your soul? (Matthew 16:26) and says you have to be detached from the world to enter heaven.

Stable marriages and marital satisfaction lead to happier people.

The study says that when people are in happy marriages, they reported being in good moods on days when they experienced more physical pain than normal. On the flipside, people in unhappy marriages reported worse moods and more physical pain on a daily basis. Loneliness also causes people to die sooner, with researchers claiming it is as dangerous to your health as it is to overuse tobacco or alcohol.

Jesus demands commitment to your spouse with His pronouncements against divorce (Matthew 19). Later on, the Letter to the Ephesians exhorts husbands and wives to love each other — pointing toward relationships that are loving and good for both spouses (Ephesians 5:21-33).

Maintaining a healthy weight is helpful to long-term happiness.

This includes staying active throughout your life. While Jesus doesn’t talk about eating right or staying fit, St. Paul emphasizes the importance of taking care of our bodies as they are temples of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19) He also reminds us to glorify God with our bodies.

The ability to cope with life’s ups and downs in a healthy way is essential to happiness.

That’s what the study shows. And Christianity helps put the roller coaster of life in perspective: Jesus says that we do not belong to this world (John 17:16), and he shares how our suffering in this world actually helps us be ready for the next (Matthew 5:3).

So, how can we be happy? If both Jesus and Harvard’s longitudinal scientific research concur that having moderate appetites, maintaining a sense of hope and patience about life, and prioritizing our relationships (particularly marriage if we’re blessed with a spouse) are important to lifelong happiness, let’s get going!

This appeared at Aleteia.

Cecilia Pigg

Cecilia Pigg was a Gregorian Fellow and 2015 graduate of Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas. A former editor of Catholic Match newsletter, she is a wife and mother living in Topeka, Kansas, and writes weekly for Aleteia.