What makes us live happy and healthy? Is it working hard at our jobs or having a lots of money? Is it having lots of friends? Or working out everyday? Is the answer more physical or mental? It is older adults that have the answers.
The Harvard Study into Adult Development is the longest study into adult life ever conducted – it spanned over 75 years and still continues today.
During that time it looked over the lives of 724 young men, from everything from health to family to work. Today, only 60 of these men are still alive – most of them in their nineties.
What can we learn from those before us, who have lived full lives through the ups and downs?
The clearest message is that “good relationships keep us happier and healthier”.
There are three big lessons about relationships:
1. That social connections are good for us. And that loneliness hurts us.
People who are more connected to family, friends and community, are happier, physically healthier and live longer.
And the experience of loneliness can be toxic. Anyone can feel lonely, it’s not directly connected to social isolation – you can be lonely in a room full of people, you can be lonely despite being married. People who are more isolated than they would like to be are less happy, their physical health and brain function declines earlier in life and they live shorter lives.
2. It’s not about how many friends you have or if you’re in a committed relationship – it’s the quality of the connection that you have.
Living in the middle of conflict is really bad for your health and, conversely, living in good warm relationships can actually protect your health. It is just as important to fix or cut off toxic relationships from your life as it is to harbour the good relationships.
When looking at the men as they approached their eighties, the researchers could predict who were going to live to be happy healthy octogenarians by looking at what they knew about these men during their 40s and 50s.
It wasn’t their physical health conditions that predicted how they were going to grow old – it was how satisfied they were in their relationships. Those who had warm relationships at 50 were the healthiest at 80.
3. Good relationships not only protect our bodies, they also protect our brains.
People who are in stable relationships, where you are secure and can count on the other person, their memories stayed sharper longer. And relationships can be anything – not just restricted to spousal or familial. It can be a close bond with a co-worker or a neighbour. Maybe someone who shares a hobby with.
Relationships don’t have to be smooth – couples could bicker, siblings can argue, friends can fight, but if they felt that they were there for each other when the going got tough then those issues did not take a toll on their memories.
“The good life is built with good relationships” – Mark Twain
The study has now expanded to include the wives and over 2000 children of theses men. And the results are still the same – healthy relationships are the key.
Kind, warm relationships at any age can be good for you. Just because you haven’t had the best relationships since you were young and in school doesn’t mean you aren’t going to be happy or healthy. Some people develop strong bonds with people when they are adults, others post-retirement. As people, we must learn to “lean into relationships”.
What does “leaning into relationships” look like? Possibilities are endless. Replace screen time with people time. Sharing a fun activity with someone you live with. Visit someone and have a warm conversation over a meal. Try reaching out to someone who you haven’t spoken to in a while.
“There isn’t time, so brief is life, for bickerings, apologies, heart burnings, calling to account. There is only time for loving and but an instance so to speak, for that, the good life is built with good relationships” – Mark Twain