Psychologists tend to study happiness as though it were a mystery. They suggest that happiness could be related to things like a meaningful career, spending time with friends, meditation, exercise, thinking positive thoughts, and taking time to savor the day. Or—far more commonly—therapists on the whole don’t talk about happiness at all. They make diagnoses about the causes of pain—depression, abandonment issues, and on and on—and attempt to decrease symptoms as much as possible. So less pain becomes the definition of happiness.
But let’s assume that happiness exists, and that we can find it with much greater likelihood if we pursue certain clear elements. For 72 years, researchers at Harvard examined this possibility, following 268 men who entered college in the late 1930s as their lives continued through war, career, marriage and divorce, parenthood and grandparenthood, and old age. They studied every aspect of physical and psychological health, and in the end, the study’s primary architect for the last forty of those years—George Vaillant—was asked, “What did you learn from this massive study?”
His response? "Happiness is love. Full stop." Elaborating, he added little: “The only thing that really matters in life is your relationships to other people—and that means love.”
Asked to describe more what he meant by “love,” Dr. Vaillant said: "What that means is this: It doesn't matter whether you have a huge group of friends and go out every weekend or if you're in a ‘perfect’ romantic relationship. It's the quality of the relationships—how much vulnerability and depth exists within them; how safe you feel sharing with one another; the extent to which you can relax and be seen for who you truly are, and truly see another."
As I said earlier, other activities have been associated with happiness: friends, career, church attendance, pets, and more. Why do these activities keep showing up as factors? It’s not because they actually make you happy. They are associated with happiness because when we do those things, we are expressing love—the one thing that DOES create happiness. We express love when we’re with our friends or even pets—under ideal circumstances—as we do with our hobbies and other activities.
Happiness is love. Full stop.