A good life. That’s the prize we are all working towards. To look back on life and know you did everything possible to live it to the fullest: happy, healthy and perhaps even wealthy.
There’s good news for good living. A recent study unveils the secret that could most positively impact longevity, physical health and keep our minds sharp as we age.
Robert Waldinger is a psychologist, Zen Priest and, most relevantly, the fourth Director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, one of the most comprehensive longitudinal studies in history, and the longest study on Happiness. The study followed people over the course of their entire lifetime to understand which factors contributed most to happiness, good health and longevity.
Nearly 80 years ago, this study started tracking the lives of 724 men who, for decades, have been interviewed to answer in-depth questions about their lives, relationships, work situations, physical and mental health and family life. The study also included data from medical records and brain scans.
All participants started in 1938 when they were in their late teens. About a third were Harvard students, including John F. Kennedy, and the others were boys from Boston’s poorest neighborhoods, chosen because they were from some of the most troubled and disadvantaged families in the area. Since Harvard was an all male school at the time, the study included only males.
Today, about 19 men remain in this study, aged well into their 90’s, and the study now includes the nearly 2000 children of those original 724 men.
The study found that what makes a good life is not what you might expect. It isn’t socio-economic situation, income, physical appearance, education level, or occupation.
The Secret to Happiness?
Quite simply, the answer is good relationships.
We know tending to your body is essential, but your relationships are a form of self-care, too. Close relationships protect people from mental and physical declines – and it turns out close relationships are better predictors of happiness than social class, IQ, even genes.
Three Major Findings
- Social connections are good for us – loneliness kills. Those more socially connect to friends, family, and their community were happier, healthier and lived longer. The more isolated were found to be less happy, experienced health and brain function declines earlier in life and ultimately died earlier.
- The quality of your relationships matters. Living in the midst of conflict is bad for your health. Living in the midst of warm, supportive relationships is protective. In fact, when the study looked retrospectively at participants, they found those who were healthiest in their 80’s were those who were most satisfied with their relationships at age 50.
- Good relationships protect our bodies… and our brains. Being in a securely attached relationship to another person in your 80s is protective. People in relationships where they feel they can count on each other in times of need have memories that stay sharper longer. While those in relationships where they feel they could not count each other experience earlier memory decline.
Many of us sacrifice the time we invest in relationships with those we care most about because we feel we are serving them best by fulfilling our responsibilities and obligations, by working harder, longer to make more money, etc.
The irony is, by taking time away from those relationships is quite simply bad for our health. Yes, we have to eat well and we have to exercise. But, we also have to devote time to building and protecting those quality relationships.
Here’s to living your best life, with those who matter most.
For more inspiration, take a listen to Robert’s TEDTalk. Enjoy!
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