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  • Writer's pictureKate Halfpenny

This summer I’ve found the secret to happiness – and science agrees

My neighbour Lisa texts just after 7.30am. Swim? Yep. We chuck boogie boards in the Golf, its boot studded with sand middens, and head to Ocean Grove main beach. The water is aqua, tourists are still in caravan annexes, tide is rising. We muck around in the waves for half an hour.

About 10.30am, after a reckless breakfast of Nutella spoonfuls, I text Lisa. Pickleball on my lawn? Yep. At 5pm she brings a sundowner packet of chips and we debate whether Paul Simon is any good. For five weeks, both on holiday, we rinse and repeat. Lisa teaches me to stand-up paddleboard. We landscape her front garden, start calling each other “bro” apropos of nothing. When I work for a day, Lisa drops off date loaf: “Play lunch.

Growing up, everyone has a great mate next door. Mine: Janine Weston, Glen Waverley, early 1970s. Matching View-Masters, dragsters, halter-neck tops, taste in mixed lollies at the milk bar. But it’s rare in middle age to have a kindred spirit on your doorstep to hang out with all summer, luxuriously unimpeded by children or jobs, making plans on the fly depending on our mood.

Except for my back fat and nodding off by 9pm, I felt like a kid again. And according to science, I’m on the road to true happiness.

Ask anyone what they want for their life or their children’s, and most put happiness top of the list. But while we crave contentment, we’re not always that flash at finding it. Advertising culture tells us it can be bought with a European river cruise or found within the golden handcuffs of a gun career and an eastern suburbs mortgage.

Harvard professors Robert Waldinger and Marc Schulz debunk that in The Good Life, a recent release that I mowed through in afternoon banana-lounge reading sessions. The book dissects the findings of the world’s longest study on happiness, which kicked off in 1938 when Harvard researchers started tracking 724 US men (yep, just the blokes back then) – a mix of male Harvard students and low-income workers in Boston.

Since then, the Harvard Study of Adult Development has tracked the same people and their families, asking thousands of questions and taking hundreds of measurements including brain scans and blood work. The second generation is now being studied.

The aim? To discover what really makes for a good life.

Over eight decades of studying these lives, the researchers found one thing had more effect on physical and mental health (including heart disease and depression) and longevity than anything else: “Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period.”

It doesn’t matter if we’re filthy rich or scraping by, single or hitched. Strong connections are what bolster us against life’s trauma, boredom and grief.

Participants John and Leo both topped their class. John became a partner in a city law firm. Divorced, he worked evenings and weekends. He was one of the least happy respondents. Leo, described as “ordinary” in the study, became a high school teacher in his home town and was home at night to raise his children with his childhood-sweetheart wife. Leo had one of the richest inner lives.

“His identity wasn’t entangled in his work but in his relationships,” Waldinger found, noting that, hallelujah, it’s never too late to get happy. At any age, “you can find real fulfilment by fostering just one or two very warm relationships”.

My plan is to fold the study’s seven main findings into my post-summer life: have relationships that create a sense of safety (tip: write a list of the people you’d ask to do an airport run), don’t take work home, create good relationships at the office, have positive interactions with strangers (it’s as simple as saying “hi” to the person behind you in the coffee line), limit social media use, phone instead of text and see people one-on-one instead of couples’ or group catch-ups.

And I’m counting the sleeps to the next school holidays.

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