A puppy, a happy marriage, and good friends are the key to a long, healthy life: study

The Canine Wellness Centre helps injured dogs regain their movement. Don Emmert/Getty Images

TORONTO – A landmark study that began in 1938 suggests that the key to a healthy, long life is a happy marriage, owning a puppy and hanging on to a group of good friends.

These three life-altering factors are even more important than wealth and social class, according to Harvard University’s Grant study that spanned over 70 years and followed the lives of nearly 300 Harvard graduates.

In 1938, 268 male Harvard students were picked for the study. They were sophomores in the graduating class of 1942 to 1944 growing up at the tail-end of World War II, according to George Vaillant, a Harvard psychiatrist who directed the study for 32 years. He’s now 78 years old and has published his third book on the findings.

The men were followed from young adults to senior citizens, with scientists evaluating their progress in life every two years.

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“The finding on happiness is that happiness is the wrong word. The right words for happiness are emotional intelligence, relationships, joy, connections and resilience,” he told the Daily Mail newspaper in the United Kingdom.

Take a look at Vaillant talking about his findings with Harvard here:

A common thread that kept the men happy and thriving was a happy relationship: only four of the 31 men in the study who remained single were still alive today. Meanwhile, more than a third of those with companions were still alive even into their 90s, according to the newspaper.

Overall, marriages brought much more happiness after the age of 70, too.

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Still, those who had lost loved ones moved on.

“Having a loving family is terribly important but from 70 to 90 years old, you’d be surprised at the people who, despite enormous deprivation, manage to find love later on,” Vaillant said.

If subjects didn’t have meaningful relationships, a pet dog often filled the void, the study noted.

“If you want to be happy, and don’t have a six-month-old baby to trade smiles with, get yourself a puppy.”

The Grant research notes that owning a pet dog, for example, boosts your physical and mental wellbeing. The animals also keep your immune system strong, while daily walks with pets gets owners into the habit of regular exercise.

In an interview with Canada’s Maclean’s magazine, Vaillant shed light on peoples’ ability to recover.

About 50 per cent of alcoholics in the study recovered, with a significant portion of those signed up with Alcoholics Anonymous. These men were surveyed 60 different times over 50 years, the magazine reports.

“Everybody believes that if you do crossword puzzles you won’t get Alzheimer’s. Or that if you exercise enough, you won’t get heart disease. They’re looking at short-term studies,” Vaillant told Maclean’s last week.

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“When you have a full record, you find that people who are getting Alzheimer’s stop doing crossword puzzles, and people who are healthy are still exercising 10 years later.”

Some notable Americans were part of the study’s cohort of subjects. Four of the men grew up to run for Senate, one became a bestselling novelist and others took the reins of some companies.

Others became lawyers, doctors or ran their own businesses.

One man, who Vaillant concedes researchers “bent over backwards” to protect, was former president of the United States John F. Kennedy.

With the men living into their 90s, the study is still ongoing, offering what may be science’s longest glimpse at life, from youth to old age.

Vaillant’s lifetime of research brought him an “awfully good time,” he told the Daily Telegraph in the United Kingdom.

“It gives me an awful lot of hope.”


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