Health And Wellness

Why Healthy Relationships Are The Secret To A Truly Happy (And Healthy!) Life

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Why Healthy Relationships Are The Secret To A Truly Happy (And Healthy!) Life

By Louisa Davis

What makes you happy? How do you stay healthy and live long? What defines a good life? Human beings have been struggling to answer these questions for millennia.

Robert Waldinger, a psychiatrist, professor at Harvard Medical School and the director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, decided to find that one thing that makes a good life and helps us become happier and healthier.

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Waldinger conducted one of the longest studies ever to find what makes a good life. The researcher found that people had different views about being healthy and happy.

In a survey asking millennials about “what makes you happy” or things that can make them better in the future, most people answered money, fame or being rich.  

We’re told to be the best in everything, work hard, be successful, earn more, win the rat race. It is in the very mind of most people worldwide that these are things that ultimately make our life happy and fulfilling.

But, is it true? Do people with such lofty goals end up being happy? 

What choices do people make and how they work towards our greater good is unclear. To figure this out, one needs a picture of the entire lives of humans.

Thus, Mr. Waldinger decided to watch humans as they go through life right from the time that they were. 

Harvard Study of Adult Development is one of the world’s longest studies of adult life that tracked the personal and professional lives, physical and emotional health, victories and failures in marriage and careers of the participants for over 80 years.

Guess what? The results are surprising for the entire world.

Besides results, it’s jaw-dropping to know that this study is running for 80 years without fail. Fortunately, the research staff was very cooperative and the participants too did not resist sharing personal information years after years.

How did the researcher find what makes you happy?

This one-of-a-kind study was started in 1938 during the Great Depression. The scientists divided the participants into two groups:

  • 268 male graduates from Harvard’s classes in one group (the Glueck study) and
  • 456 poor people (from poor and disadvantaged backgrounds) in Boston in the other group (the Grant Study)

There are no female participants in the study because Harvard College was only for males then. Entered into the study as teenagers, boys from the first group graduated during the second world war and most of them chose to serve in the war. 

From the second group:

  • Few adults became factory workers
  • Some lawyers and other doctors
  • Some addicted to alcoholism
  • Few developed schizophrenia
  • Some were highly successful
  • One turned out to be President John F. Kennedy
  • Another WAS Ben Bradlee, the longtime Washington Post editor
  • Some were hitting the rock bottom of life

Over the years, the study expanded. By 2015, it included 1,300 children of the original participants. Some of them are in their 50s and 60s, while only 19 participants from the original study are alive and in the mid-90s.

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How did the researcher track the lives of these participants?

To get a clear picture of the participants’ development and lives, the research team personally met them every two years and asked them to solve a set of questions about their lives. Also, they collected their blood samples, brain scans, and other medical records.

The research team spent time with the participant’s family members to know their deepest concerns. In this process, they videotaped their communication with children and wives, as well as encouraged some women to join the study.

Currently, the research involves wives and children of the original men. Waldinger hopes to expand this second-generation study to third and fourth generations. It's so rare and long, this kind of study may never be replicated.

In 80 years of time, the study generated bulk data and a big lesson for humans.

So, what ultimately makes you happy and healthy?

Waldinger said in a TED Talk released in 2015 that good relationships keep us happier and healthier. This video turned out to be viral and is one of the most viewed TED Talks.

Robert Waldinger shared important life lessons from his study, along with wise ways to build a happy and fulfilling life.

1. Social connections are "really good" for us.

According to Waldinger, people who are well-connected to family members, friends, neighbors, and community are physically and mentally happy. “They’re physically healthier and they live longer than people who are less well connected,” he said.

As per his study results, people who are lonely and socially isolated are less happy and start to experience poor health in midlife. He argues that loneliness kills because, in an unhappy state, your brain functioning decreases faster. Thus, lonely people have shorter lives than those who are not lonely.

This aligns with a recent message shared by Dr. Vivek Murthy, former Surgeon General of the United States. He wrote in an article on Harvard Business Review, saying, “Loneliness and weak social connections are associated with a reduction in lifespan similar to that caused by smoking 15 cigarettes a day.”

2. Quality of our close relationships matters, not quantity.

It doesn’t matter how many friends you have. Having a large group of buddies or too many relationships does not guarantee happiness.

It’s about how healthy and strong your relationship is with your loved ones. This is the second lesson from the longest study on happiness and a good life.

Waldinger explained that if you are willing to commit to and maintain a healthy relationship with a person, you are sure to reap benefits. Toxic relationships and conflicts are bad for our health. "High-conflict marriages, for example, without much affection, turn out to be very bad for our health, perhaps worse than getting divorced," he added. 

One of his study participants, who is an 80-year-old man, reported that he is happily partnered with his wife. The husband and wife remained happy, even when they had poor physical health.

But, whenever people in unhappy relationships suffered emotional pain, their physical pain also doubled. Healthy, warm and close relationships, have the ability to “buffer us from some of the slings and arrows of getting old,” Waldinger said.

3. Good relationships protect our brains.

Do you count on your relationships in times of need? Then you may enjoy longer-lasting ability to remember things.

According to Waldinger, a healthy and positive relationship with loved ones sharpens your memory. On the other hand, people who could not count on their partner experienced poor memory very early.

However, his study results do not confirm that people in good relationships never made a mistake or were easygoing all the time. But, "As long as they felt they could really count on the other when the going got tough, those arguments didn't take a toll on their memories,” Waldinger said.

So, the third lesson is: one must “replace screen time with people time” to become happier. How can you do that if you have poor relationships with near and dear ones? This is the question at the heart of many people with unhappy relationships.

To them, Waldinger recommended “livening up a stale relationship by doing something new together,” such as long walks or date nights, or “reaching out to that family member who you haven’t spoken to in years.”

He also said that relationships become messy and complicated. It is not easy to take care of all the family needs all the time.

The effort and hard work that you put into relationships to make them good or healthy may not be glamorous. It’s never-ending drama, but the results will always be beautiful and cherishable.

What's the number one way to a good life? Relationships, relationships, relationships!

If you aim to be happy, healthy, and live long, then make good relationships. Don’t forget to choose quality over quantity when it comes to close relationships.

RELATED: How To Feel Happier With Yourself — So You Can Find Happiness In Relationships, Too

Louisa Davis is a writer who focuses on happiness, relationships, and health and wellness. For more of her health and wellness content, visit her author profile on The Mind's Journal.

This article was originally published at The Mind's Journal. Reprinted with permission from the author.