The longest in-depth Study on Human Life Suggests Relationships are Key
A newly-released book by Robert Waldinger, MD, and Marc Schulz, Ph.D., leaders of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, makes the compelling case that the simple recipe for a long and happy life is overwhelmingly affected by solid relationships.
“It’s the longest in-depth longitudinal study on human life ever done, and it’s brought us to a simple and profound conclusion: Good relationships lead to health and happiness. The trick is that those relationships must be nurtured,” wrote Waldinger and Schulz.
“This study reminds me of the importance of cherishing our social universe, and why it’s important to take time to cultivate it—both what I get from it and what I pour into it,” says Gretchen Jameson, Ed.D., Chief Learning Officer and Group President for Social Impact at Kacmarcik Enterprises.
The Harvard Study of Adult Development—started in 1938—has been studying what makes people flourish for over 80 years. And recently, it has brought to light the cost of loneliness and why nurturing our personal relationships is vital throughout our lifespan … affecting not only our happiness but also our health.
It shouldn’t surprise us to learn that relationships affect us physically. Think of the energized feeling you get when you connect with someone during a deep and meaningful conversation, or how stressed you feel after you argue with a loved one.
But it goes even deeper than this.
The Harvard study found that: “loneliness has a physical effect on the body. It can render people more sensitive to pain, suppress their immune system, diminish brain function, and disrupt sleep … ongoing loneliness raises a person’s odds of death by 26% in any given year … add to this the fact that a tide of loneliness is flooding through modern societies, and we have a serious problem.”
In a recent study of 55,000 people worldwide, one of every three people (across all ages) reported often feeling lonely. In the U.K. the economic cost of this loneliness (due to low productivity and high employee turnover) is estimated at $3.1 billion and led to the founding of a U.K. Ministry of Loneliness.
Let’s say that again: loneliness raises your odds of death, costs billions, and now requires ministry-level support.
The health aspect doesn’t surprise some.
“No one comes to therapy to deal with chronic pain without talking about relationships,” says Licensed Clinical Social Worker Heidi Goehmann, “No one comes to therapy to deal with a cancer diagnosis, work stress, or aging without talking about relationships either. Life’s problems are relational problems. The physical problems of life become relational or make us more aware of relationships that have or are impacting us. The relationship problems of life bring stress and tension and swirling thoughts that impact our bodies.”
What does this mean about the other factors that affect flourishing? According to Harvard’s model, these other factors include: happiness and life satisfaction, mental and physical health, meaning and purpose, character and virtue, and financial stability. Do “close social relationships” blow the others out of the water, rendering them meaningless? By no means.
“As I read the study it’s not so much that close social relationships matter MORE than the other flourishing factors, but rather that close social relationships seem to exert influence on the quality of those factors,” Jameson says. “Do you have lousy relationships with those closest to you? Guess what? Your mental and physical well-being suffers … your happiness and life satisfaction are impacted … the understanding I nurture about my own sense of character and virtue is undercut … the very sense of meaning and purpose in my life narrows.
“As a person of Judeo-Christian faith, this makes sense to me,” Jameson continues. “After all, from the very beginning, it was ‘not good for (hu)man to be alone.’ (Genesis 2:18) For me, the kernel I took from this study is the weight of relationships on my flourishing is worth my attention.”
Not only is it worth our attention, but it’s also worth nurturing.
“I think one thing this study reveals is that relationships also help us in all that is good in our lives and in the moments of our lives to make the experiences richer,” Goehmann says. “We know there is incredible power in story sharing and having the stories of our lives witnessed, both in trauma but also victory. The internal sense of satisfaction we get from accomplishing something or exploring something new is dynamic but sharing that multiplies the satisfaction and meaning we find in the challenges and joys.”
Goehmann says when it comes to making friends and building relationships, shared experiences are often the key to getting started.
“Places for creativity, learning, and playfulness are excellent places to meet friends—classes, art workshops, nature group hikes, libraries, you name it. These places help us all step outside of productivity and into our creativity or conscious growth, which helps with our sense of vulnerability and gives us more confidence in our sense of selves, which makes reaching across the table to talk to someone seem less overwhelming.
“Know that some people will be your people and others will not be your people,” Goehmann adds. “When we try to make a connection, we will find out that some people aren’t for us. That doesn’t mean something is wrong with us, that means we have a little more clarity on the kind of person we are looking for or want to spend time with than we did before.”
Regardless, it seems to get harder to make social connections, the older we get. Goehmann says that’s due to several factors. The first is that we get weary. Life can feel daunting as we age, and relationships take work.
“Second, people are lovely and weird,” Goehmann says. “With all the things going on in life, I think we have less tolerance for the weirdness as we age. There are skills that can help us navigate weirdness, but we don’t always learn these in our families or education systems or through experience.
“The more missed connections or communications we experience, the more we want to sink into ourselves, and we feel more vulnerable. Usually, as adults, our days are filled with spaces built for productivity—not friendships and growth. Where we once had classrooms and recess to get to know someone, we now have a 30-minute lunch break (maybe).”
Jameson agrees, saying that it is these skills of childhood that we must somehow relearn and apply in our adult lives to grasp the full benefit of relationships.
“What Waldinger and Schulz seem to have uncovered is that maybe the best thing we can truly do is still summed up in the ideas Robert Fulghum popularized in his 1986 book, All I Really Need to Know, I learned in Kindergarten: ‘when you go out into the world, hold hands and stick together.’”