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75-year Harvard study reveals the key to success in 2017 and beyond

Harvard University campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Michael Fein | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Harvard University campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

If you're looking for a science-backed way to make 2017 a happy new year, there are other options besides reluctantly dragging yourself to the gym or thinking, "What should I change about myself?"

A recent Harvard study, which examines almost a century's worth of data, reveals a simple way to be happier and more successful next year: Spend more time with people who make you happy.

Harvard's Grant & Glueck study tracked the physical and emotional well-being of 268 male graduates from Harvard, as well as 456 poor men growing up in Boston from 1939 to 2014. Multiple generations of researchers analyzed brain scans, blood samples, self-reported surveys and interactions of these men to compile their findings.

The conclusions are simple. Close relationships can make or break a person's well-being, according to Robert Waldinger, Harvard professor of psychology and director of the center behind the study.

"The clearest message that we get from this 75-year study is this: Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period," Waldinger says in a 2015 Tedx talk.

If you want to be happier and healthier in the coming year, invest in close, positive relationships.

Having someone to lean on keeps brain function high and reduces emotional, and even physical, pain. People who feel lonely are more likely to experience health declines earlier in life, and they tend to die sooner, the study says.

"The good life is built with good relationships." -Robert Waldinger, Harvard clinical professor of psychiatry and director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development

If you don't have a large group of friends, or don't have a partner, don't worry. A person only needs a few close relationships to be happy.

"It's not just the number of friends you have," Waldinger says, "and it's not whether or not you're in a committed relationship. It's the quality of your close relationships that matters."

Applying the study's findings to your own life is both easier, and less easy, than you might think.

It's a reminder to carve out more time to connect with people who you enjoy being around, sure. But unlike landing a new job or buying a new car, you many not see changes to your mood overnight. "Relationships are messy and they're complicated," says Waldinger. Investments in them can take time to pay dividends.

The work of maintaining close relationships, science says, is still worth it. In fact, building positive relationships is one of the five habits of self-made millionaires, according to one man who spent half a decade studying wealthy people.

Waldinger, who is currently working on Harvard's second cross-generational study, stands by what he's discovered: "The good life is built with good relationships," he says.