The Secret to a Long and Happy Life

A top researcher says Americans should put some of their retirement money toward family vacations.

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George Vaillant, professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, has overseen the longest-running longitudinal study of health and happiness. His study has tracked the lives of more than 500 Harvard students and men from inner-city Boston since the 1930s, and has drawn some intriguing conclusions, including that stable relationships are one key to a long and happy life.

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Vaillant says what makes him happiest now, at age 77, are his grandchildren. His advice is sometimes at odds with what one usually hears. He urges people to take money out of their retirement accounts to go on vacation, because learning how to relax and spend time with loved ones is essential to one’s happiness later in life. “Just remember, if you get nothing else out of talking to me, to put some of your IRA money into vacations,” he says. U.S. News spoke to Vaillant about his research on how to find happiness. Excerpts:

Did the wealthier people in your study live longer than the poorer ones?

One thing that’s exciting is that 30 percent of the Harvard sample have lived to 90 instead of the expected 3 to 5 percent. So you have people who lived a lot longer than they should have. What kills you is cigarettes and alcohol. Those things that are marketed to let you live forever—antioxidants, pills—those things just don’t seem terribly important.

How important are relationships?

Divorce is very bad for your health. We follow marriages very carefully. We know everyone who’s gotten divorced and who hasn’t. Sure enough, divorced people die [earlier] and have worse health than married people. But an interesting fact is that divorced people are six times as likely to die from cirrhosis than happily married people. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that what causes cirrhosis and divorce is alcoholism.

What about education?

If you look at the inner-city men who went to college, their health was just as good as the Harvard men who didn’t go to grad school. The inner-city men went to terrible colleges by Harvard standards, but they did get 16 years of education, and that absolutely evened the playing field. If you look at smoking and drinking habits, you find that people who go to college drink less and smoke less and are less obese. This is a function of education rather than social class. The important thing about education is that in order to get an education, especially if you're poor, you have to think you have a future.

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Did income alone have an impact on longevity?

Not much when you control for the other stuff. We were also interested in the men who enjoyed their retirement. There’s no question that the millionaires in the study had retirements that I think I would enjoy. I was talking to a 96-year-old man in a mansion with round-the-clock servants. What a nice warm and happy life he must have.

Money can buy you things in retirement that any red-blooded American would want, but when you ask them, “Do you like your retirement or not?”, their income didn’t correlate. There were three things that correlated with a fun retirement: 1) Whether your marriage was good, 2) Whether you took fun vacations before you retired, and 3) Whether you have always liked doing things for other people. So it’s being more interested in others than yourself that leads to a happy retirement, and having somebody you enjoy being with. And it’s having learned before you retire how to play—that’s more important than putting money in your IRA.

What didn’t make much difference was health. It did correlate, but it’s less important. People in poor health with 13 grandchildren are happy. We’re much more interpersonal than the public and Wall Street gives us credit for. The other thing is, wrinkles and cellulite are a disease of the 60s. I didn’t meet anybody at 80 who was worried about that. I’m 77, and what I enjoy most are my grandchildren.

Twitter: @alphaconsumer