Monday Mornings with Madison

The Six Keys to Fulfillment and Work-Life Balance

In the U.S., work consumes a huge part of most people’s lives.  In 2014, 40% of all U.S. employees worked an average of 40 hours per week, not including the time it takes to get ready to go to work and the commute to and from work.  But the majority worked even more.  A Gallup report released in 2014 showed the average time worked by full-time employees had ticked up to 46.7 hours a week, or nearly a full extra eight-hour day.  And salaried employees worked an average of 49 hours per week.  In fact, 50% of all U.S. employees work between 40 and 60 hours per week, not including prep or commute time.  And for business owners and top-level professionals, a work week consumes upwards of 60-80 hours.  Since a week has just 168 hours and the average person sleeps from 35-60 hours a week (depending on the person), for many people there isn’t time for much else.

Given this huge commitment to “the job”, one might conclude that work is one of the keys to happiness.  Is it?  While it’s never good to generalize that what is good for some is good for all, research has provided some scientific evidence that there are certain things that are fundamental to success and living a fulfilled life, and it is only partly related to work.  Here are the findings.

The Harvard Grant Study

A study – known as the Harvard Grant Study — conducted by Harvard University followed the lives of 268 Harvard undergraduate students (from the classes of 1938-1940) from their university years until old age.  The researchers – different professors directed the study over the 74-year period — collected data on various aspects of the subject’s lives at regular intervals.  Then, between 1940 and 1945, Harvard Law Professor Sheldon Glueck also recruited 456 young men from inner-city Boston neighborhoods as controls for a different study and those men were later added to Harvard Grant Study in the 1970s.

Of course, the research had limitations.  For one thing, it included only men.  Harvard did not even begin accepting female students until 1977.   Still, it provided an unrivaled view into the lives of a subset of people who are now well into their 90s.  No other study like this has ever been done.

The study began with an exhaustive physical exam of each person in the study.  Over the course of decades, subjects answered biennial questionnaires, allowed health information to be gathered from their doctors, and sat for in-depth interviews. In recent years, they even submitted to neuro-imaging scans and gave blood for DNA analysis. The goal was to see how those individuals changed and what they learned over time.  Overall, the Harvard Grant Study produced comprehensive, real answers to some of life’s fundamental questions: how do we grow and change over time; what do we value as time goes on; and what is likely to make us happy and fulfilled.

So what did they find?  The Harvard Grant Study reached a multitude of conclusions about how to have a more meaningful, balanced and fulfilling life.  Here are some.

1.  Relationships Matter Most

Love was found to be a vital key to a happy and fulfilling life. The study found that there were two cornerstones in the foundation of a happy life.  One is love.  The other is finding a way of coping with life that does not push love away.  The researchers felt that the study’s most important finding was that what matters most in life are relationships. A man could have a successful career, money and good physical health, but without supportive, loving relationships, he would not be happy.

2.  Life is about more than Money and Power

Like many other studies, the Harvard Grant Study confirmed that acquiring more money and power does not correlate to greater fulfillment. That’s not to say that money or traditional career success don’t matter. They do.  But they’re small parts of a much larger picture.  While they may loom large during one’s younger years, they diminish in importance when viewed in the context of a full life.

3.  Success is tied to Knowledge and Engagement, not IQ

In terms of professional achievement, the only thing that matters is that a person is content at work.  Feeling connected to one’s work was far more important than making money or achieving traditional success.  Also, for those wanting to achieve success, education — specifically going to college —was more important than money or social status in determining lifetime success.  And success is not tied to IQ.  The study showed that, above a certain level, intelligence doesn’t matter. There was no significant difference in maximum income earned by men with IQs in the 110–115 range and men with IQs higher than 150.

4.  Never Too Late to become Happier

The study found that those who had tough beginnings – such as self-starters who sought out jobs as kids — did better than those who didn’t. One man went into the Harvard Grant Study with fairly bleak prospects for life satisfaction: He had the lowest rating for future stability of all the subjects and had previously attempted suicide. But at the end of his life, he was one of the happiest because he spent his life searching for love and found it.

5.  Strong Connections are Crucial

The more areas of life in which a person makes deep and meaningful connections with others, the better.  Joy depends on connections.  The study found strong relationships to be far and away the strongest predictor of life satisfaction.  And, in their professional lives, the men who had strong boyhood relationships with their mothers were associated with effectiveness at work.  In fact, men who had “warm” childhood relationships with their mothers earned an average of $87,000 more a year than men whose mothers were uncaring.  On the other hand, men who had poor childhood relationships with their mothers were much more likely to develop dementia when old.  On top of that, warm childhood relations with fathers correlated with lower rates of adult anxiety, greater enjoyment of vacations, and increased “life satisfaction” at age 75.  The study also found that, with age, connections become even more important.  In that regard, the Harvard Grant Study provides strong support for the growing body of research that has linked social ties with longevity, lower stress levels, and improved overall well-being.

6.  Challenges Can Lead to Happiness

The journey from immaturity to maturity is a journey from narcissism and selfishness to connection and altruism.  A big part of that shift is tied to how people deal with challenges.  The ability to makes lemonade out of lemons – a person’s coping mechanisms — has a significant effect on social support and overall well-being. The secret is replacing narcissism — the single-minded focus on one’s own emotional oscillations and perceived problems — with mature coping defenses.  Serving others and expressing one’s self creatively – thereby making positive connections with the world — are ways to productively deal with challenges.

One might argue that the results of a single study should not be applied to all people everywhere, and that is true.  However, it is also true that there is more that people have in common than they are different.  What is true of many is often true for most.  Having tracked and studied in-depth the lives of a large group of people over seven decades does provide some deep insights into human nature and what makes people tick.  The Harvard Grant Study offered some revelations and prescriptions for achieving work-life balance and being happier.  There’s nothing wrong with gaining a little wisdom and insight on how to be more fulfilled from those who have already lived a long life and know a thing or two about what it takes.

Quote of the Week

“The only thing that really matters in life is your relationships to other people.” George E Vaillant, Harvard Researcher, The Harvard Grant Study


© 2016, Written by Keren Peters-Atkinson, CMO, Madison Commercial Real Estate Services. All rights reserved.

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