In a rare kind of ongoing research, the Harvard Study of Adult Development has managed to track the lives of 724 men for 79 years. The men were divided into two classes. The first group were sophomores at Harvard College while the second was a group of boys from Boston’s poorest neighborhoods. They were investigated from the time they were teenagers all the way into old age to determine what keeps men healthy and happy.
Year after year (since 1938), researchers asked about their work, their lives, their health, without knowing how their stories were going to pan out. It turns out that flourishing in life is a function of close ties with family, friends, and community. It had nothing to do with fame, wealth, social class, IQ, genes, etc.
The fourth director of the study, Robert Waldinger, a psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital and a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, said the study revealed that our relationships impact powerfully on our health.
Social connections are good for us; loneliness really kills.
While calling loneliness toxic, Waldinger said social connections made people happier and physically healthier. It made them live longer too.
On the other hand, he also said:
“People who are more isolated than they want to be from others find that they are less happy, their health declines earlier in midlife, their brain functioning declines 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.”
The quality of our close relationships matter.
Instead of focusing on the quantity, it’s vital to focus on the quality of our friendships.
Living in the midst of conflict affects our health. High-conflict marriages, for instance, affect our health negatively, perhaps more than getting a divorce. 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.”
The study found that being attached to a relationship in your 80s is protective. Such people had sharper memories while people who were in relationships where they couldn’t really count on the other person experienced gradual memory decline.
Arguments, Waldinger said, didn’t affect the memories. They didn’t matter as long as the octogenarian couples knew they could count on the other when the going got tough. “The good life,” Waldinger concluded, “is built with good relationships.”
The same can be said in regards to the relationship between a manager and her employee. While a friendship outside the office isn’t necessary, the happiest employees feel secure, knowing their superior always has their back and vice versa.