The Secret to a Fulfilling Life and Great Work Relationships

Last Updated:Tuesday, January 30, 2024

A 75-year Harvard study kills two birds with one stone as it provides the number one secret to a fulfilled life (and career path).

Like a cuttlefish using its bioluminescence to attract its prey - clickbait headlines take advantage of our curiosity as we wander into meaningless ad-thread articles finding ourselves mesmerized by the hottest Star Trek TNG characters or the ‘Eight Best Tricks to Shed Thirty Pounds’.

In today’s plugged in world every other article, video, or product online promises the key to happiness yet very few have the credentials to back it up. Cue the Harvard Study of Adult Development.

The 75-year Harvard Study of Adult Development (or the ‘Grant and Glueck’ study) originated as a survey interested in studying what psychological variables and biological processes from early in life inform and predict our health and well-being later in life.

Beginning in 1939, the study tracked physical and emotional well-being of two groups of participants - 456 men who grew up in the inner-city of Boston and 268 Harvard graduates from the classes of 1939-1944.

724 men over the course of 75 years makes this Harvard study one of the most comprehensive, longitudinal studies in history.

70 of the original men are still participating in the study today while researchers are currently beginning the G2 (Second Generation) study, which involves the children of the original participants.

What revolutionary discoveries has this survey - involving multiple generations of researchers - made?

The answer is slightly more commonplace than you may expect.

senior couple sitting on a bench

The key to a happy and fulfilled life is - relationships

Not just any kind of relationship. Good, quality relationships.

Expecting a much more prolific conclusion? Seems like common sense, right?
Well, take a moment and ask yourself truthfully (in the words of Robert Waldinger - the fourth director of the Adult Development Study):

“If you were going to invest now in your future best self - where would you put your time and energy?”

A recent study on millennials asking what their most important life goals were. Over 80% said their major life goals were to get rich, another 50% said they wanted to become famous.

As Waldinger points out in his influential TED talk, the millennial - currently ranging in age from 21-36 - has aspirations for the future which aren’t that far off from the original participants of the Harvard study of the same age.

Like millennials, most of the men involved in the Adult Development study reported an interest in fame, wealth, and career success as their top priorities.

However as the passage of time and life experience continues to reveal hard truth - the study proves that the men who were actually most successful in their careers were those who embraced relationships with their family, friends, and community as a priority.

office workers celebration

Fake smiles won’t get you anywhere

Waldinger outlines three major points researchers have learned so far from the study:

  1. Social connections are really good for us
  2. It’s the quality of close relationships that matter most
  3. Good relationships protect our bodies and minds

It’s smart to build connections. Yet what the Harvard findings outline is to focus on the quality of those connections. No phony social climbing. No fake smiles or empty greetings.

The steps to success require involvement, interest, and commitment to those that surround you. Which - for most of us - includes the people you work with on a daily basis.

The men who showcased these characteristics throughout their lives also reported successful careers, marriages, and personal lives with a higher level of contentment.

Researchers discovered that their minds were stronger with sharper memories and longer life spans.

Bona fide findings

This study goes so far back all collected data was recorded by hand. As technological advancements in research science came along, Harvard quickly took advantage and expanded their data toolset to include blood samples and brain scans.

To demonstrate the study’s thoroughness even further participants completed self-surveys every two years while personal interviews were conducted every five years along with the collection of personal physician notes.

These findings are legit.

So how can we apply these insights to our workplace relationships?

Good relationships - more profitable than a resolution

This might all seem like common sense to you. And truthfully, it is.

Yet, so is omitting soda and chips from your diet if you want to lose weight. Or quitting smoking if you desire a healthier lifestyle.

It’s the New Year and everyone is concerned with making resolutions based on common sense. Yet there are aspects of our lives we can all collectively agree upon where there is always room for improvement - and that is our relationships.

The same principles for achieving healthy personal relationships apply to your work relationships too.

Building and maintaining good work relationships will not only encourage you to be more engaged and committed to your organization; it can also open doors to valuable projects, career advancement, and profitable opportunities.

Popular on-demand career and management solutions company Mind Tools offer their top five tips for building great work relationships.  

  1. Trust: rely on your colleagues
  2. Mutual Respect: develop a psychological safe space
  3. Mindfulness: take responsibility for your actions
  4. Welcome Diversity: factor alternative opinion into your decision-making
  5. Open Communication: honest communication is key

How to evaluate the quality of your work relationships

child marshmallows

Measuring trust with marshmallows

Ever heard of the marshmallow test?

Stanford’s study on delayed gratification which involves offering a child the option of one reward immediately or two rewards if they wait for a short period. A popular test among parents outside of the lab, the marshmallow test demonstrates not only delayed gratification but an understanding of mutual trust.

Does the child trust they will receive a reward after waiting?

Do you trust your superior’s word on receiving a raise? Or your colleagues offer to carpool?

The marshmallow study concluded that in most cases where the subject trusts they will receive their twofold reward, they not only demonstrated delayed gratification but better life outcomes overall.

Trust is an intimate affair worth having. The advantage of building trust in the workplace means colleagues work and communicate much more effectively.

Mutual respect: easier said than done?

It’s a no-brainer that mutual respect in the workplace is a valuable asset. By respecting your colleague, you value their input and opinions - and they value yours.

Yet what happens if you get paired with someone that you don’t jive well with?

Pursue a professional relationship anyway. Engage conversations, ask questions, focus on things you have in common. All relationships are workable.
With mutual respect, workers create a psychological safe zone where they can develop solutions on collective insight, wisdom, and creativity.

What singer-songwriter Jewel has to say on practicing mindfulness at work

Many companies provide perks - things like daycare, dog-friendly offices, nap pods, and full kitchens - presumably to make their workers’ lives easier and therefore improve general well being and promote a more mindful work environment.

Yet some people - like singer-songwriter turned humanitarian Jewel - see these ‘wellness’ amenities as an “elegant trap to keep people at work.”

Jewel started her voyage into the mindfulness trend first as director of her nonprofit Never Broken and has now partnered with the CEO of Zappos on a new corporate benefits startup titled Whole Human.

The entertainer mogul claims these practices could be “a new frontier of corporate culture”- with courses on how to be a better parent, have better health, and less anxiety. These courses will work on the basic principle that teaching and practicing mindfulness at the workplace encourages better work relationships.

Practicing mindfulness has benefits beyond the workplace.

Taking control of your emotions, responsibility for your actions, and blocking out negative opinions or behavior of others can increase satisfaction and effectiveness in the workplace.

PB & Salmon for breakfast? Open up to alternative opinion

People with good relationships accept and welcome diverse people and ideas.

Accepting people from diverse backgrounds and/or diverse opinions is essential when opening up to alternative thinking. Diversity should be welcomed in the workplace.

Next time your colleague puts peanut butter and smoked salmon spread on their bagel in the morning, don’t gawk or snort in disgust …

Consider what eccentricities they have to offer, maybe even factor it into your future insight on breakfast.

People who are more open to diversity are more likely to agree with changes thus create a more innovative and creative environment with better work relationships.

woman dancing meme

Don’t be a closed book

Here’s another no-brainer.

Opening up to your coworkers will only create richer relationships. Open and honest communication is a fast track to better work relationships.

Still not convinced on the value of great work relationships?

water drop

Focus on the ripple effect of good relationships.

Consider this single word: stakeholders.

Key stakeholders play a vital role in your development and success. These are the people who ensure your projects and career stay on track. Prioritize building relationships with them and open up the door to opportunity.

Another underlooked relationship in the workplace is that of the supplier and customer.

Take a step outside of the office and consider the relationship between restaurateur and customer.

If you maintain an honest and trusting relationship with your customer, you ensure that even if something does go wrong - damage is minimal.

Consider the Flipside

On the flip side, if you allow the stress of your environment to affect your service an angry customer has the potential to ruin your reputation, sales, and personal happiness.

Bottom line - putting effort into your work relationships increases personal well-being, opportunities, and success.

Co-founder of a $250 million business - the Headspace app - Andy Puddicombe speaks about the “ripple effect” that meditation (or mindfulness) can produce.

Puddicombe explains that practicing meditation is not only for yourself but for all those around you - the people who you interact with on a daily basis.

Because afterall, to be open for connection you have to take personal growth seriously and that means prioritizing your own capacity to process and handle emotions and stress.

Like practicing meditation or mindfulness - if you put the work in - happier relationships have the power to affect everyone and everything around you.

So what are the things you can actively do to help build good work relationships?

Maybe you are already voted ‘most popular’ at the office. Perhaps you’ve never had an interest in hearing what your coworker has to say. Either way, we can all use a little help on how to build and maintain good work relationships.

  • Develop your people skills: say “thank you” to people, open the door for your colleague, or simply behave the way you would like to be treated

  • Identify your relationship needs: this may seem weird in the workplace but knowing what you need from others and what they need from you is key

  • Schedule time to build relationships: Grab a coffee! Toast a bagel together! Whatever! Small gestures matter

  • Develop your emotional intelligence: Are you the hair-pulling freak out type or can you stay calm, cool, and collected? Observe how you react to people, practice humility, and examine how you react in stressful situations

  • Appreciate others: Everyone. From your boss to the dishwasher to that maintenance guy you rarely see

  • Be positive: positivity is attractive and contagious

  • Manage your boundaries: it’s great to have friends at work but don’t let it get in the way of the quality of your work

  • Avoid gossiping: Don’t do it. We all know it’s the source of distrust and animosity between people

  • Listen actively: Practice opening your ears more than your mouth. You’ll quickly become someone who is known to be trusted

Money ain’t a thang

Having a lot of money doesn’t mean you’ve made it in life.

How many stories do we hear of wealthy people counting endless bills with no one there to enjoy their wealth with (I’m thinking of you Ebeneezer Scrooge, Preston from Blank Check, and Mr. Burns)?

Having superior health and a successful career isn’t going to cut it either.

The science is in - you won’t have a successful, healthy, and happy career without quality work relationships.

The findings from Harvard’s Study of Adult Development shouldn’t be surprising and they’re certainly not unattainable - yet they are crucial to our understanding of personal and career-based goals, priorities, and values.  

So go buy your colleague a coffee - hell, why not a beer while you’re at it - and start building great work relationships.