What keeps us happy and healthy as we go through life? If you think it's fame and money, you're not alone – but, according to psychiatrist Robert Waldinger, you're mistaken.
Good genes are nice, but joy is better. The famous and almost 80 years old Harvard study on Happiness, has proved that embracing community helps us live longer, and be happier.
When the study began, nobody cared about empathy or attachment. But the key to healthy aging is relationships, relationships, relationships.
Scientists at Harvard University began tracking the health of 268 sophomores back in 1938 during the Great Depression, hoping the study would reveal clues to leading healthy and happy lives. Over the years, they have observed participants's health trajectories and their broader lives, including triumphs and failures in careers and marriage, and the findings have produced unexpected lessons, and not only for the researchers.
The first surprising finding is that our relationships, and how happy we are in our relationships, are key to keep us healthy and happy throughout our entire lives.
Robert Waldinger, psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital, professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and the fourth director of the Harvard study on Happiness is convinced that taking care of the health of our body is important, but tending to our relationships is the greatest form of self-care.
He recorded his TED talk, titled “What Makes a Good Life? Lessons from the Longest Study on Happiness,” in 2015, and it has been viewed over 20,000,000 times. Here's the link to watch it once again, just in case you've missed it.
These are the three big lessons about relationships from Waldinger and the Harvard Study:
GOOD RELATIONSHIPS KEEP US HAPPY AND HEALTHY
The first big finding is that social connections are really good for us, and that loneliness kills. It turns out that people who are more socially connected to family, to friends, to community, are happier, they're physically healthier, and they live longer than people who are less well connected.
The experience of loneliness turns out to be toxic. People who are more isolated than they want to be from others find that they are less happy, their health declines earlier in midlife, their brain functioning declines sooner and they live shorter lives than people who are not lonely.
QUALITY OF RELATIONSHIPS MATTER
We all know that you can be lonely in a crowd and you can be lonely in a marriage, so the second big lesson is that it's not just the number of friends you have, and it's not whether or not you're in a committed relationship, but it's the quality of your close relationships that matters. It turns out that living in the midst of conflict is really bad for our health.
Those who had unhappy marriages felt both more emotional and physical pain. High-conflict marriages, without much affection, are very bad for our health, perhaps worse than getting divorced. And living in the midst of good, warm relationships is protective. Those who kept warm relationships got to live longer and happier, said Waldinger, and the loners often died earlier.
RELATIONSHIPS AFFECT OUR BRAIN
The third big lesson about relationships and our health is that good relationships don't just protect our bodies, they protect our brains. It turns out that being in a securely attached relationship to another person in your 80s is protective, that when people are experiencing relationships where they can really feel they can count on the other person in times of need, than people's memories stay sharper longer. Vice versa, they could experience earlier memory decline. Those good relationships don't have to be smooth all the time, search revealed that despite any discussions or frictions, as long as you feel you could really count on the other when the going got tough, those arguments wouldn't take a toll on memories.
Close relationships, more than money or fame, are what keep people happy throughout their lives. Healthy bonds include relationships with family, friends, and community.
Those ties protect people from life’s discontents, help to delay mental and physical decline, and are better predictors of long and happy lives than social class, IQ, or even genes.
So why is this so hard to get and so easy to ignore?
Well, we're human. What we'd really like is a quick fix, something we can get that'll make our lives good and keep them that way. Relationships are messy and they're complicated and the hard work of tending to family and friends, it's not sexy or glamorous. It's also lifelong. It never ends, it's a continuous process.
Since Aging starts at birth, people should start taking care of themselves at every stage of life, the researchers say. Aging is a continuous process so taking good care of ourselves early in life is the first step to set on a better course for aging.
The people observed in Harvard study who were the happiest in retirement were the people who had actively worked to replace workmates with new playmates.
Just like the millennials in that recent survey, many of men when they were starting out as young adults really believed that fame and wealth and high achievement were what they needed to go after to have a good life. But over and over, over these 75 years, the study has shown that the people who fared the best were the people who leaned in to relationships, with family, with friends, with community.
Where to start?
The possibilities are practically endless. It might be something as simple as replacing screen time with people time or livening up a stale relationship by doing something new together, long walks or date nights, reaching out to that old college mate or family member who you haven't spoken to in years, start a new activity, live your passions signing up to a club, taking a trip to meet new friends...
Robert Waldinger, who is as well a Zen priest, said he practices meditation daily and invests time and energy in his relationships, more than before. “It’s easy to get isolated, to get caught up in work and find out than you haven't seen any friends in a long time” he said. “So I try to pay more attention to my relationships than I used to.”.
The good life is built with good relationships. Let's start today working to build our good ones.
Choose to be Happy today and have a wonderful weekend !