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Tuesday, May 28, 2024

May is Mental Health Awareness Month


The pursuit of happiness: Wisdom from the Harvard Study of Adult Development

As we celebrate Mental Health Awareness Month this May, it can be helpful to focus on the “health” aspect of mental health. While it is easy to find articles on the increase in anxiety disorders globally or how burnout and stress can be toxic to your health, it might be helpful to flip the script and focus on the positive factors that contribute to good mental health. Understanding the secrets to a fulfilling and joyful existence can go a long way in terms of protecting our mental health.

One of the most significant misconceptions about happiness is that it is solely dependent on external circumstances. Social media tries to convince us that wealth, success, a beautiful home and other material possessions will make us happy. While not having to struggle in life can contribute to our sense of well-being, material things are not predictive of happiness. Research has consistently shown that once basic needs are met, additional wealth and possessions do not significantly contribute to happiness.

The Harvard Study of Adult Development, spanning over eight decades, is one of the longest-running studies on adult development and happiness. It followed the lives of two groups of men, tracking their physical and mental health, relationships and overall well-being. Through its findings, we gain profound wisdom on what truly matters in fostering happiness and resilience throughout our lives.

One of the key findings of the study was the importance of nurturing quality relationships. Human connections, particularly close bonds such as marriage and friendships, emerge as powerful predictors of happiness and longevity. Quality relationships with others provide us with a sense of belonging, support and fulfillment. As we navigate life’s challenges, having a strong network of loved ones to lean on becomes invaluable, promoting both mental and physical wellbeing. Life can be stressful and downright difficult at times; our friendships can help us weather the storms life will inevitably send our way.

Researchers found that it was not so much “quantity” or the number of friends or relationships you have, but rather, the quality of the relationships. The study emphasizes that it is the depth of emotional intimacy and support within relationships that profoundly impacts our happiness. Investing time and effort in building and maintaining meaningful connections enriches our lives and contributes to our overall satisfaction.

The Harvard study underscores the significant role of adaptability and resilience in promoting happiness and well-being. Life is full of unexpected twists and turns, and our ability to navigate these changes with grace and resilience greatly influences our mental health. Those who demonstrate resilience, bouncing back from setbacks and embracing life’s challenges, tend to experience greater happiness and fulfillment. Genetics and early life experience appear to play a role in determining if we are the “glass half full” or “glass half empty” kind of person; in other words, do we tend to focus on the negative or the positive? Nevertheless, we can work on improving personality traits such as optimism, resilience, extroversion and selfesteem, as these are positively associated with happiness.

Healthy habits also emerge as crucial factors in the pursuit of happiness, according to the study’s findings. Regular exercise, a balanced diet and avoiding harmful habits like smoking contribute not only to physical health but also to mental well-being. Prioritizing self-care and adopting healthy lifestyle choices empower us to lead happier, more fulfilling lives.

The Harvard study sheds light on the lasting impact of childhood experiences on adult happiness. The warmth and support received from parents during childhood play a significant role in shaping our emotional well-being in later years. A nurturing family environment sets the foundation for resilience, self-esteem and healthy relationship dynamics, influencing our ability to find happiness in adulthood. While some individuals may not have been blessed with an ideal family, it is never too late to re-parent yourself through your relationship with your children and other loved ones.

Happiness is a complex and multifaceted concept that can be influenced by numerous factors. The Harvard Study of Adult Development has shed light on some of the major influences on human happiness and well-being across the lifespan. In honor of Mental Health Awareness Month, perhaps we should pause for a moment and reflect on what things in our life are helping us in our pursuit of happiness. Reaching out to family and friends, strengthening social connections and taking charge of our physical health can all improve our mental health. Mental health is not simply the absence of mental illness but rather a dynamic process involving resilience, coping mechanisms and the ability to navigate life’s challenges effectively.

You can take an active role, beginning today, in improving your mental health.

Michelle Yetman, PhD, is an associate professor and a clinical psychologist at LSU Health Shreveport School of Allied Health Professions.


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