How Harvard Study on Happiness Affects Athletes

By Mim Haigh, Sports Writer – Athlete Assessments

A 75 year-long Harvard study reveals that authentic, honest and reliable relationships are the source of happiness, physical and mental health. One of the longest running studies on adult development in the world, Director, Robert Waldinger’s TED Talk on the findings has recorded some 13 million views. In this article we speak to Athlete Assessments’ Senior Consultant, Bo Hanson, about what these important findings mean for athletes, teams and coaches.

Background: The Study

Known as the Grant and Glueck study, the research began in 1938 and tracked the lives of two groups of men. One group from Harvard and later one from Boston, 59 of the original 724 participants are still alive and in their 90s, among the original cohort were eventual President, John F. Kennedy and long time Washington Post editor, Ben Bradlee.

Eventually, researchers expanded the study to include the men’s children now numbering 1,300 and their wives. Some of the cohort became successful businessmen, doctors, lawyers, and others ended up as schizophrenics or alcoholics, but no path was predictable or inevitable.

Over the years, researchers have studied the participants’ health trajectories in regular periods, measured skulls, given their participants blood tests, examined their organs and conducted MRIs. They have looked at their broader lives through one-on-one interviews, including their triumphs and failures in careers and marriage. Psychiatrist Robert Waldinger is the fourth Director of the 75-year continuous study.

The research didn’t focus on relationships until it came under the guidance of second Director, George Vaillant 1972-2004. Prior to that, study Director, Clark Heath was set on genetics and education as predictors of good health outcomes.

The Findings

Close relationship does not necessarily mean marriage or life partner, the connections can be with community, family and friends, but must always be characterized by warmth, honesty and authenticity. Waldinger says, “It’s the quality of your close relationships that matters.”

Specifically, the study showed that having someone you can rely upon helps your nervous system relax, your brain stay healthy and reduces emotional stress and pain.

Findings also disproved the myth that people’s personalities are set by age 30.

Close relationships prevent mental and physical decline and close warm connections are accurate predictors of long happy lives, not genes, IQ, or social class.

Close relationships are more important than money or fame.

Loneliness is as powerful as smoking or alcoholism and these two are major predictors of poor health.

“Good relationships don’t just protect our bodies; they protect our brains,” said Waldinger in his TED talk. “And those good relationships, they don’t have to be smooth all the time. Some of our octogenarian couples could bicker with each other day in and day out, but as long as they felt that they could really count on the other when the going got tough, those arguments didn’t take a toll on their memories.”

The Findings and Application to Sport

Bo Hanson, Senior Consultant, explains why these research findings are so significant for athletes. He says, “this specifically relates to so many issues we see within the teams we have worked with over more than 12 years now. As we’re focused on developing quality working relationships, we’re primarily looking to achieve higher levels of trust. In this context, trust means your team members know you will do your job. They know you will look out for your team, make decisions in the best interest of the team, and they know they can rely on you to codevelop and adhere to team values, behaviors, rules and processes.

Teams lacking trust create stressful experiences for all team members. The inability to know with certainty how a team member is going to behave can be debilitating to performance, especially when the performances in competition themselves are already stressful. The inability to predict and know your team members are going to follow through on performing their role for the benefit of the team can push an athlete into a distressing position.

I can relate to this issue as I’ve experienced team members who broke team rules, performed poorly despite coaching interventions, showed a lack of empathy to others or who simply did not want to have a productive relationship with other team members resulting in exclusion and isolation. On these occasions, if the issue was not dealt with by the coach, the team always performed poorly and below their potential.

Findings also disprove the myth that people’s personalities are set by the age of 30. This is in line with the key reason we talk about growth mindset and why we use the DISC model to understand athlete and coach behavioral preferences rather than their “personality”.

Close relationships are more important than money or fame. This finding is an interesting one as I tend to agree based on the work I’ve done within the professional team environment. Keep in mind that in the professional teams we work with, the fact is, every player is receiving an income which they know far surpasses any other income they would receive if they were not a professional athlete. The money absolutely gets to a point where it’s not significant, when compared to the impact on their performance, poor team member and coach relationships and poor team culture. Simply paying athletes more money does not improve their performance and in many cases, it actually distracts them.

Loneliness is as powerful as smoking or alcoholism and these two are major predictors of health or lack of it. This is certainly also the case within sport. Any athlete will know this feeling if they have experienced isolation and segregation from their team members due to political, racial or any other reasons that people are not included in the team’s tight relationship clusters. Coaches must always be looking for signs of athlete isolation. Another major factor in athlete isolation is the impact of social media. Coaches need to be aware of who is saying what and how it’s playing out for individual athletes and the team as a whole.”

The Future

So we can keep reinterpreting and applying these important findings to our lives, we were pleased to hear that the study will continue. It already includes the wives and children of the original men, but Waldinger proposes to expand the study and include the third and fourth generations.

Specifically, he says, “we’re trying to see how people manage stress, whether their bodies are in a sort of chronic ‘fight or flight’ mode.” Waldinger said, “We want to find out how it is that a difficult childhood reaches across decades to break down the body in middle age and later.”

This is interesting, especially in context of the study findings we wrote about in ‘Answer to THE Coaching Question‘ inspired by “Super Champions, Champions, and Almosts: Important Differences and Commonalities on the Rocky Road”. This study from 2016, showed that among the athletes who achieved greatness, the number one factor they had in common was that their path to success was riddled with small doses of “trauma” both within and outside of their sport. That study showed that learning to deal with hard times and adversity with a level of autonomy was important in the development of resiliency and self-reliance.

There are a lot of recurring themes in what builds success; which-ever definition of success is used. One of the most important themes is, quality relationships.


Where to from here…

At Athlete Assessments, we’re experts in the people side of sport. We know sport and live high performance every day. Our reputation and proven success at the elite level speaks for itself. The results that our National, Olympic, Professional and Collegiate team clients achieve directly reflects their focus on getting the people side right.

Athlete Assessments’ Team Programs have been specifically designed to maximize the people side of your team.

  • Winning Back to Back ChampionshipsAchieve improved performance with better communication, relationship and conflict strategies
  • Get a ‘blue-print’ on how to coach to your athletes’ specific needs
  • Know with confidence how to develop strong team chemistry
  • Team Programs include DISC Profiles, detailed Coach’s Resources & Consultations
  • Work with a 4x Olympian with over 15 years in Coach Development & Leadership Training
  • Guaranteed to deliver improved performance and results

At Athlete Assessments we’re here to provide you with excellence in service and to help you be your best. If there is anything we can do to be of service, don’t hesitate to contact us.

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