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Harvard study reveals the secret to long-term happiness

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Harvard’s “Study of Adult Development” followed two groups of men over eighty years to “identify the psychosocial predictors of healthy aging.” Beginning before World War II, they interacted with over seven hundred men as they scrutinized blood samples, performed brain scans, and collated surveys.

According to psychiatrist Robert Waldinger, the director of the research project, “The clearest message that we get from this eighty-year study is this: Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period.”

However, as Dr. Waldinger clarifies, “It’s the quality of your close relationships that matters. Not the quantity.”

Here’s what the Harvard study overlooked: there is one relationship that is most crucial to our flourishing. According to a report published last month in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, “Anxiety or a lack of certainty about one’s relationship with the divine represents a threat to psychological well-being.”

Oswald Chambers turns out to be right: “There is only one relationship that matters, and that is your personal relationship to a personal Redeemer and Lord. Let everything else go, but maintain that at all costs, and God will fulfill his purpose through your life.”

Why is this?

“People will go a bit nuts”

The biblical answer to our question is clear: God made us in his image (Genesis 1:26) for personal relationship with himself (cf. Revelation 3:20). As the Westminster Shorter Catechism states, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.”

St. Augustine spoke for all of us when he said to God, “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you” (Confessions 1.1).

But what could I say to the person who discounts both the Bible and those who believe in its truth? An option would be to ask how we are doing in a culture that refuses to “rest” in God. How “restless” are our hearts as a result?

Andrew Sullivan summarizes the core thesis of a new book called Stolen Focus by Johann Hari: “Create a throw-away consumeristic civilization, break families into ever smaller units, add a tech revolution, online addiction, economic precariousness, breakneck social change, endless work, and the collapse of religion and meaning, and yes, people will go a bit nuts. They’ll become depressed; they’ll seek out escapes through opiates or meth; they’ll disappear down rabbit holes of online fanaticism; they’ll seek meaning through work or fame; they’ll tear each other down with glee; they’ll lose the skills for family, friendship, constancy, discipline, and love.”

“They all strive towards this goal”

Blaise Pascal (1623–62) was a genius. He wrote an essay on geometry at the age of seventeen that aroused the envy of Rene Descartes. Two years later, he developed the first digital calculator. He also invented the syringe, created the hydraulic press, and laid the foundation for the modern theory of probabilities.

Pascal’s understanding of human experience was as brilliant as his scientific expertise. For instance, in the Pensees, he observed: “All men seek happiness. There are no exceptions. However different the means they may employ, they all strive towards this goal. The reason why some go to war and some do not is the same desire in both, but interpreted in two different ways. The will never takes the least step except to that end. This is the motive of every act of every man, including those who go and hang themselves.”

He asked, “What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace?” Then he responded to his question: “This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words, by God himself.”

Pascal concluded: “God alone is man’s true good, and since man abandoned him, it is a strange fact that nothing in nature has been found to take his place: stars, sky, earth, elements, plants, cabbages, leeks, animals, insects, calves, serpents, fever, plague, war, famine, vice, adultery, incest. Since losing his true good, man is capable of seeing it in anything, even his own destruction, although it is so contrary at once to God, to reason and to nature” (Pensees 425).

“Embrace something with your heart”

God’s timeless word and today’s headlines agree: Humans cannot flourish apart from an intimate, personal relationship with our Creator. This fact explains much of the suffering in our secularized culture. But it also applies to you and me just as much as to any lost person we know.

If you have trusted Christ as your Lord, the fact that you have received eternal life through him does not guarantee that you are experiencing that life today. In fact, the opposite can be the case: we think that because our eternity is secure, our temporal lives need little spiritual attention.

The Harvard study is true for you: the quality of your relationship with Jesus is the single greatest determiner of your happiness and flourishing. Neglecting this relationship is indeed a “threat to psychological well-being.” But fostering it is the pathway to the abundant life Jesus died to give you (John 10:10).

Br. Curtis Almquist of the Society of St. John the Evangelist in Boston observed, “To believe is not ultimately to wrap your brain around some existential concept. To believe is to embrace something with your heart as if your life depended upon it. The English word believe comes from the same etymological root as the word belove, which is to hold dear, to love deeply.”

Do you believe in Jesus today?

NOTE: As we embark on a new year, I see on the horizon some seismic cultural shifts headed our direction. This is why I wrote my latest book, The Coming Tsunami, which releases on January 25. On this day, I’m also hosting a special virtual book launch Q&A, which I’d love for you to attend. So please pre-order your copy of The Coming Tsunami to gain exclusive access. I look forward to seeing you on January 25.