Have you ever seen the popular Discovery Channel show MythBusters? I love watching the hosts set up scenarios where movie scenes, popular assumptions, and more are tested and proven to be valid…or not.
Recently, I read about a scientific study that did something similar: It “busted” many of the myths our culture believes about happiness. Begun in 1938, the Grant Study followed 268 young male Harvard students throughout their lives. (In fact, it’s still ongoing!) The study’s goal is both simple and incredibly profound: to identify the factors that enable us to live happy, healthy lives. As the study’s published findings show, many of those factors aren’t what scientists thought they would be.
Here are six happiness myths the Grant Study busted, along with my own thoughts about them. I’ll be quoting this article written by George E. Vaillant, who was the study’s director from 1972 to 2004:
Myth # 1: Coming from a privileged background gives people a leg up in life. Vaillant writes: “We found that measures of family socioeconomic status had no significant correlation at all with later success in any of these areas [economic success, mental and physical health, and social supports and relationships].”
If you’re familiar with my story, you know that this busted myth is no surprise to me. I grew up in a very comfortable home and went on to become extremely financially successful. And I also suffered a nervous breakdown! No, I certainly won’t deny that financial security is a great blessing. But at the end of the day, all it allows you to do is suffer in comfort. Being bullied, suffering from perfectionism, living an out-of-balance life, coping with loss, and more aren’t any easier because you drive a nice car and have money in the bank.
Myth # 2: Being a people person will help me to be successful. Vaillant writes: “The sociability and extraversion that were so highly valued in the initial process of selecting the men did not correlate with later flourishing.”
Our society really values being a “people person”—and so, it seems, did the researchers who set up this study! The more friends and acquaintances we have, the thinking goes, the more socially satisfied we’ll be, and the more opportunities we’ll have. Here’s the problem: Very often, “sociability” is simply good acting. For a relationship to truly impact your happiness, it has to go deeper and be more meaningful than successful small talk. Whether you are an extrovert, an introvert, or somewhere in between, it’s the quality—not the quantity—of your relationships that counts.
Myth # 3: I don’t need a great social life to flourish in other areas. Vaillant writes: “…success in relationships was very highly correlated with both economic success and strong mental and physical health.”
This busted myth piggybacks on # 2, demonstrating further that quality relationships are “where it’s at” because they have a ripple effect throughout other areas of our lives. When you cultivate authentic, mutually supportive, positive relationships with others, you’ll feel less anxious and lonely, and more empowered. You’ll also have a reliable safety net to fall back on when something goes wrong. This is an ideal scenario for attracting opportunity, building professional success, and avoiding stress-related ailments like high blood pressure, depression, and more.
Myth # 4: People with natural intelligence are most successful. Vaillant writes: “We found… that there was no significant difference between the maximum earned incomes of the men with IQs of 110-115 and the incomes of the men with IQs of 150-plus.”
Vaillant goes on to report that men with “warm relationships” made an average of $141,000 more per year (yes, you read that right!) than their peers with the “worst scores for relationships.” Are you seeing a pattern here? I am. Once again, quality relationships have a much bigger impact on success than something our society assumes should be a big driver. Here, the takeaway is that natural intelligence will get you only so far on its own. People don’t care how smart you are if you’re cold, rude, dismissive, unsupportive, etc. So often in business (and in life), it’s not what you know so much as how you make people feel.
Myth # 5: I can’t help that I’m not a happy person. It’s just not my nature, and I can’t change that. Vaillant writes: “If you follow lives long enough, people adapt and they change, and so do the factors that affect healthy adjustment.”
In his article, Vaillant tells the story of study participant Godfrey Minot Camille, who was initially “a disaster as a young man”: Camille was unhappy, a hypochondriac, had few meaningful connections with others, and even attempted suicide. But when he died, Camille was one of the most successful participants in the study in terms of his professional success, health, fulfillment, relationships, and more. Over time, Camille learned to forge and develop meaningful relationships. He had a spiritual awakening. And he replaced unhealthy coping mechanisms with more productive ones.
I can relate! Over the course of my own happiness journey, I’ve become a very different person from the man I used to be prior to my breakdown. I have learned that happiness isn’t something you’re born with; it’s something you choose. Yes, people can change. Everyone can learn skills, attitudes, coping mechanisms, etc. that radically change how they experience life.
Myth # 6: Physical attractiveness contributes to happiness. Vaillant writes: “At the outset of the Study in 1939, it was thought that men with masculine body types—broad shoulders and a slender waist—would succeed the most in life. That turned out to be one of many theories demolished by the Study as it has followed the lives of these men.”
It’s easy to assume that being good-looking makes you happier. But in my experience, “beautiful” people struggle with self-esteem issues just like the rest of us (sometimes to much greater degrees). And who cares how attractive a face is if the personality behind it is ugly? How you treat other people is much more impactful than how you look.
These are certainly not all of the myths that the Grant Study busts. But I do think they illustrate an important point: True happiness comes from positive relationships, a healthy perspective, and the willingness to change. No matter what society tells us, good looks, money, and even our own pasts don’t define and fulfill us.
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