Let me start by explaining the study, because it’s really cool.
Here’s the question they started with. Researchers had done lots of studies on happiness, and success, and all these “good” metrics of people’s lives, but the problem with those studies is that we tend to ask people questions after
the fact to try to figure out what led to success or happiness. And memories are rather unreliable. You may attribute your success or your happiness to something in your memory, but what if that’s only because you’ve ignored other things that happened to you? What if you’re not really seeing the whole picture? We don’t remember everything, and our insight into ourselves isn’t perfect.
So Harvard wanted to do things differently. They asked, “What if we could look at entire lives, as they unfold, through time?”
And that’s what they did. Way back in 1938, Harvard chose 724 teenage boys to follow throughout their lives. For 75 years, they’ve tracked the lives of these men, year after year, asking about their home life, health, work, etc. They did all of this without knowing how anything was going to turn out.
They chose their study participants from two groups. One group was sophomores at Harvard College (an elite high school). The second group was a group of boys from Boston’s poorest neighbourhoods, living in tenements, many without electricity and running water. Over the years, they watched people go from the bottom of the social scale to the top; and they watched people go from the top go to the bottom. They saw some die early, but many are still participating. And they started interviewing the wives and kids, too!
At this point, though, after watching these families for 75 years, they can now make some pretty definitive conclusions. And the definitive lessons that they have learned weren’t about wealth or fame or working harder and harder. On the contrary, the clearest message from the data is this:
Good relationships keep us happier and healthier.
From this, they identified three key corollaries.
1. Social connectedness is good for us; loneliness kills.
People who are more connected to family, friends and community are happier, healthier, and they live longer. On the other hand, people who are lonely are less happy, their health declines earlier, their brain functioning declines sooner, and they live shorter lives. And what’s really sad is that at any given time, 1/5 Americans report that they are lonely.
2. The quality of your relationships matters. High conflict is bad for your health.
Social connection, though, is not only about being in a committed relationship or about being invited to lots of parties; it’s the quality of relationship that matters. In fact, high conflict marriages without affection are worse for our health than getting divorced. But living in the midst of good, warm relationships is protective. (the lesson here to me is not that we should divorce, but that we should learn how to resolve conflict and build goodwill!)
When the study participants started aging, and many started dying, they decided to go back to the data from when the men were 50, and ask, “what’s the biggest predictor of longevity?”
At age 50, it wasn’t their cholesterol levels that predicted whether they would grow old. It was how satisfied they were in their relationships.
The people who were the most satisfied in their relationships were the healthiest at age 80. And good relationships were a buffer to bad health, too! In their 80s, the men and women who had more physical pain but were in good relationships—days with a lot of physical pain didn’t affect their happiness levels as much. But if they were in bad relationships, physical pain changed their happiness levels.
3. Good relationships protect our brains as well as our bodies.
If you are in a securely attached relationship in your 80s, your memories stay sharper, longer. However, people in relationships where they can’t count on the other, memories decline earlier.
Here’s the cool thing, though: Relationships don’t have to be smooth all the time. Older couples may bicker about where someone left the remote control or who forgot to mail something. But if they felt they could count on each other, those arguments didn’t take a toll.
This wisdom is as old as the hills. So why don’t we believe it?
This is exactly what the Bible tells us, too. In fact, when Jesus was asked to sum up the message of the Bible, he really did it with one man word: “Love”. He said: