The secret of happiness is apparent from the most recent survey of Harvard's class of 1980. 

It turns out happiness is good.

Actually, there are three goods.  Everyone strives for each of the three though each person weights them differently.  (Some weight them very differently.)  The three goods are:

  1. Good for others
  2. Good for me
  3. Good at it.

For its 30th reunion, Harvard's class of 1980 answered about 100 questions about their lives.  Cutting the data across those members of the class most optimistic and least optimistic about their future for the next five years yielded some interesting comparisons – described below in more detail.  Our conclusion is that members of the class of 1980 (and others) are going to be happiest over the next five years if they follow five prescriptions*:

  1. Cherish your most important relationships
  2. Be a contribution
  3. Take care of yourself, your health and well being, your financial security, and your work/life balance.
  4. Do more of what you're good at and less of what you're not so good at.
  5. Bottom line, happiness is good.  Make others happy and be happy.

For those interested, a little more explanation and a core model:

Good for others

Ruben Alvero spent a couple of decades as a doctor in the US Army, finally retiring as a field officer (lieutenant colonel).  After 9-11 he felt guilty that he wasn't there with his comrades and re-enlisted in the reserves in time to get mobilized to Georgia, Iraq, and Mongolia.  At the same time, he's a full-time faculty member at the University of Colorado School of Medicine and director of IVF (In Vitro Fertilization).  All of us, the "others", owe Ruben and people like him a huge debt of gratitude.

Community/Public Service

It turns out that most optimistic of these Harvard alumni rank community/public service dramatically higher than those less optimistic.  (11% of the optimistic respondents ranked it as the one area they would most like to have success in or find fulfillment in over the next five years, while none, 0%, of the least optimistic did)

Most important relationship

The biggest differentiator between the most and least optimistic was their view of the state of their most important relationship, with the optimistic rating it 1.2 points higher on a 5 point scale.  (Additionally, their satisfaction with the current relationship structure was almost a full point higher as well.)

Career success/advancement

Those most optimistic at this point are less concerned about career success than are the least optimistic with only 17% of the most optimistic ranking that as most important, while 37% of the least optimistic ranked it as most important – second only to family happiness by all.

Good for me

Bill Aulet has had a "wild and wonderful trip" since graduating from Harvard.  He has started up and turned around a couple of companies and done quite well for himself.  But he most definitely is not all focused on what is "good for me".  Now he teaches at MIT's entrepreneurial center and still makes time for pick-up basketball on a consistent basis.

Satisfaction with work/life balance

Work/life balance is a an individual decision.  However they define the right balance, those most optimistic rated their work/life balance almost a full point higher than did those least optimistic.

Confident that they are saving enough for retirement

Similarly, whatever their individual number is, those most optimistic rated their confidence in this area almost a full point higher than did those least optimistic.

Physical fitness

Those most optimistic about the future rated their physical fitness almost a full point higher than those least optimistic.  Interestingly, 63% of all the respondents claim to exercise at least three times per week.  (It wasn't clear how many of those three times were real and how many were imagined or hoped for.)

Good at it

Ellen Weiss Dodson had not played the piano in 25 years.  Then she heard about the Van Cliburn competition for amateur adults and felt compelled to enter.  It took two years of work to be able to play a 60 minute program.  No way she did it for the money since the prize was less than the plane fare.  She didn't do it to save the world, though she knows that music is something that has to be made on a continuous basis or it goes away.  She did it because she's good at it and loves it.

We heard that from others as well who told us they did things because:

  • I had to "align my life with my inner voice and inner truth" (Debra Solomon moving from Rhode Island to an 1100 square foot green house in northern New Mexico)
  • it drew me "like a magnetic pull" (Dean Pavlakis who is switching from banking to teaching history)
  • "someone is going to pay me to do what I love to do"  (Norb Vonnegut who loves doing bad things to good people in his novels)

Feelings about what currently doing

Those most optimistic were almost a point more likely to enjoy what they are currently doing than are those least optimisitic.  Additionally they spend less time worrying about whether they have the wrong focus for their daytime activities.  (We're not going to talk about their night time activities here.)

Happiness is Good Core Model

Good for me

  • Near term pleasure (Enjoyable work/activities, fit with life interests)
  • Compensation (Monetary, non-monetary reward, recognition, respect)

Good for others

  • Meaning in the work (Impact on others, match with values)
  • Share in shaping the destiny (Influence, being informed)

Good at it

  • Match of activities with strengths and resources (Support and time)
  • Employability (Learning, development, resume builder)

*These ideas are drawn from the 30th reunion survey of Harvard's class of 1980.  Specifically, question responses were sorted across those with the brightest and least bright views of their future.  These indicated actions are drawn from an analysis of the biggest differences between those two groups and presented to the class on 10/10/10 by George Bradt and Dan Doctoroff.