Every year we wish people a happy and healthy life for the New Year. What do we mean by these wishes? Is it about success in our business, becoming famous or leaning into a full agenda of work in the next year? And how much do we know what are the secrets to happiness and success, based on strong evidence?
The Harvard Study of Adult Development seems to have clear and convincing answers. In an extremely rare ongoing research the lives of 724 men have been tracked over 79 years of whom 60 are still alive in their late 90’s. These people were followed from 1938 as teenagers and investigated periodically all the way to old age to find out what keeps men healthy and happy.
The lesson from tens of thousands of documents shows clearly that flourishing in life is a function of close ties with family, friends and our community. It has little or nothing to do with fame, money, social class, IQ or genes. The fourth and present study director Robert Waldinger explains in his great TED talk that our relationships impact powerfully on our health and happiness in three ways:
Finding 1: Social connections are good for us, and isolation kills –
Social connections in general make people happier and healthier. It made them also live longer. Waldinger reports that
“People who are more isolated than they want to be, find that they are less happy, their health declines earlier in midlife, their brain functioning slows down sooner and they live shorter lives than people who are not lonely. And the sad fact is that at any given time, more than one in five Americans will report that they’re lonely.”
Finding 2: The quality of our close relationships matters –
It is not the quantity; it’s vital to focus on the quality of our friendships. Living in the midst of conflict affects our health like high-conflict marriages. And living in the midst of warm, wholehearted relationships is protective. Waldinger said they could tell which of their men was going to grow into a healthy, happy octogenarian by looking back at them in midlife:
“When we gathered together everything we knew about them at age 50, it wasn’t their middle-age cholesterol levels that predicted how they were going to grow old; it was how satisfied they were in their relationships. The people who were the most satisfied in their relationships at age 50 were the healthiest at age 80.”
Finding 3: Good relationships protects our brains and our bodies –
The study shows being closely attached in your 80’s is protective. Such people had sharper memories. Arguments in a relationship did not matter as long as the partners could count on each other’s. On the other hand, partners in a relationship they did not particularly like, experienced a gradual memory decline. Waldinger concludes: The good life is built on good relationships”.
The psychiatrist George Vaillant, who led the study from 1972 until 2004 summarizes the results of this unique research: “When the study began nobody cared about empathy and attachment. But the key to healthy aging is relationships, relationships, relationships”
Dr. Ernst Bechinie, Master Certified Coach, Connecting Work and Soul