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The Ingredients for a Good Life

“What keeps us healthy and happy as we go through life?”

“If you were to invest your time in your future best self, where would you put your time and your energy?”  Dr. Robert Waldinger, Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, posed these questions at the beginning of a TED Talk in 2015. He is a practicing psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, the Director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, and a Zen priest.

Now, eight years later, Dr. Waldinger and Dr. Marc Schulz,  a professor of Psychology at Bryn Mawr College and associate director of the Study, provide fascinating and unexpected answers to these questions in a just-published book, a Wall Street Journal essay, and a follow-up conversation to the 2015 TED talk.

An 85-Year Study of Adult Life

The Harvard Study of Adult Development is the longest-running documented study of adult life. Over a period of 85 years, it tracked the lives of 724 men from their adolescence, all the way into old age. These subjects were asked year after year about their home lives, health and work. 

“This study survived through a combination of luck and the persistence of the researchers,” says Dr. Waldinger, “maintaining an 84% participation rate for 85 years and asking thousands of questions and taking hundreds of measurements to find out what really keeps people healthy and happy.”

Sixty of the original 724 men – most in their 90s – are still alive and participating in the study, which has now entered its second phase: to study the 2000 children of the original participants, and examine the effect of childhood experiences on midlife health.

Boston’s Privileged vs Boston’s Disadvantaged

Beginning in 1938, the study tracked two groups of men – 268 sophomores at Harvard College were selected because they were considered likely to grow into healthy and well-adjusted adults. The second was a group of 456 14-year-old boys from Boston’s most troubled families and disadvantaged neighborhoods.

Adolescent boys from Harvard University and Boston’s underprivileged areas participated in the study. (Relationship 4 Unsplash Tyler Nix.jpg)

“More than 60% of these adolescents had at least one parent who had immigrated to the US,” say the authors, “their modest roots and immigrant status made them doubly marginalized.”

The teenagers were interviewed and given medical exams, and their parents were interviewed.  They entered adulthood and a variety of professions from lawyers and brick layers to doctors. One became President of the United States.  Some dealt with addiction and disease, including mental illnesses.  Some progressed up the social ladder, others went in the opposite direction. Over the years, the men were tracked regularly with questionnaires and in-person interviews. Medical records were studied, additional medical tests conducted, and family members interviewed.  Spouses were invited to join the study in 2008.

What did the study reveal?

Dr. Waldinger says “the clearest message we get is this: good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period.”  Good, warm relationships “demonstrated broad and enduring importance,” not wealth, fame or high personal achievement.

The study teaches three important lessons. One: Social connections are really good for us. People who are well connected to family, friends or community are happier, physically healthier and live longer than people who are less well connected. Two: It’s not the number of friends you have, or whether or not you are in a committed relationship. We don’t need to be with all of our good friends all of the time. What matters is the quality of your close relationships. Living in the midst of good, warm relationships is protective, while conflict is really bad for health. Three: Good relationships don’t just keep us physically stronger – they protect our brains.  People in a protective relationship into their 80s have sharper memories longer. 

It’s all about relationships. (Relationship 1 Unsplash Etienne Boulanger.jpg)

Predictors of Health & Happiness

Participant data on satisfaction with relationships collected in their 50s were the most accurate predictors of health and happiness 30 years later – not medical data. The study found that people had less depression, were less likely to get diabetes or heart disease, and were likely to recover faster from illness when they had better connections with other people. Those who were the most satisfied in their relationships at age 50 were the healthiest, mentally and physically, at age 80.

“This message is as old as the hills,” says Dr. Waldinger, “the people in our study who were happiest in retirement were the people who had actively worked to replace workmates with new playmates.”  Stronger relationships are “intrinsic to everything we do and everything we are.” Other long-term studies – in the US and New Zealand have reached the same conclusions.

What makes good relationships so powerful?

They are stress regulators. Talking to someone about a stressful event that occurred helps bring the body and mind back to equilibrium. Our fight-or flight response to the stressor subsides. Having at least one person in your life you can go to is essential to maintain our happiness and health. People who are isolated or lonely don’t have the stress-regulation mechanism that a good relationship provides. Chronic stress and the chronic levels of inflammation build up in our bodies lead to illness and poor health. All types of relationships – even talking to strangers – have benefit.

Dr. Waldinger points out that analogous to physical fitness, strong relationships require effort. He calls this social fitness. “Our relationships need tending to, they need practice,” he says, and recommends establishing routines to meet and talk to friends or co-workers as well as livening up long-standing close relationships by trying new things together. Look for people with shared interests, and volunteer in the community; these are effective ways to meet people with whom you can build on-going relationships. Practice and learn the art of casual conversations with people. “Even small actions have the ripple effect of building our wellbeing,” he says.

Loneliness is Toxic

Relationships keep loneliness at bay
(Relationship 3 Unsplash Micheile-dot-com.jpg)

“Loneliness kills,” explains Dr. Waldinger, “people who are more isolated than they want to be from others find that they are less happy, their health declines earlier in mid-life, their brain functioning declines sooner and they live shorter lives than people who are not lonely. Feuds take a terrible toll on the people who hold the grudges.”

“A few adjustments to our most treasured relationships can have real effects on how we feel. We might be sitting on a gold mine of vitality that we are not paying attention to, because it is eclipsed by the shiny allure of smartphones or pushed to the side by work demands.  

If we accept the wisdom—and, more recently, the scientific evidence—that our relationships are among our most valuable tools for sustaining health and happiness,” Dr. Waldinger and Schulz conclude, “then choosing to invest time and energy in them today becomes vitally important. It is an investment that will affect everything about how we live in the future.”

It’s not too late to improve your relationships, make a new friend, or reconnect with someone.  Are you ready to make this investment in your health and happiness?

Images: Unsplash images: courtesy Mukund Acharya

Mukund Acharya

Mukund Acharya is a regular columnist for India Currents. He is also President and a co-founder of Sukham, an all-volunteer non-profit organization in the Bay Area that advocates for healthy aging within...