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What Is the Key to Lifelong Happiness?

A decades-long study points to positive relationships as a key to lifelong happiness. Here are tips on how to keep and improve your connection to others.

Group of friends laughing together. Key to lifelong happiness.
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What is the key to lifelong happiness? Each of us might have different responses to that question, reflecting on joy in the here-and-now as well as sustainable, authentic happiness over the years.

If you’re the sort of person who likes to learn “best practices” when it comes to emotional well-being, look no further than Harvard University, whose Study of Adult Development  is one of the longest-running pieces of happiness research. The study launched in 1938, following 764 men—then teenagers—from around the world.

The findings point us in this direction: the greatest source of long-term happiness is positive relationships we cultivate with others.


Two friends of different ages in conversation
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The Key to Lifelong Happiness: “Social Fitness”

The Harvard researchers use the term “social fitness” to describe the positive relationships that they note among people who report greater happiness over their lifetimes. The hallmarks of a socially fit person include:

  • Honesty when assessing which friendships and relationships are serving your life—and the courage to move on from those that aren’t.
  • A variety of types of relationships, including friends of different ages, with different life experiences, and including casual friendships as well as deep ones.
  • Strong communication skills, including understanding how to apologize when necessary.
  • Empathy and compassion for others—and recognition of how you and a friend contribute to each other’s lives.


Two friends, man and woman, talking to each other
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What Makes a Positive Relationship?

Friendship, like love, is a muscle that needs to be exercised regularly if it’s to remain strong. Positive relationships often have these things in common:


Two women gardening together
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Positive Relationships Keep Us Physically Healthier

Fostering positive relationships in these ways help us stay healthier and live longer. And if good health and longevity aren’t ingredients in lifelong happiness, I don’t what is. Try these other longevity-supporting activities (with a friend!) for a health-and-happiness win-win.

How “socially fit” do you feel? Take stock of your relationships and see how you can build more positivity—and happiness—into each connection you have with another person.

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