March 31, 2016

Good Relationships Are Key to a Happy Life. Loneliness Kills.

A recent study asked millennials to identify their most important life goals. Over 80 percent wanted to get rich. About 50 percent of these young adults included "becoming famous" among their major goals.

Yet the Harvard Study of Adult Relationship, one of the longest and most complete studies of adult life ever conducted, found that good relationships, not wealth or fame, keep us happier and healthier.

The Report
The study followed two cohorts of white men for 75 years, starting in 1938:
  • 268 Harvard sophomores
  • 456 12-to-16-year-old boys who grew up in inner-city Boston.
Researchers surveyed the men about their lives (including the quality of their marriages, job satisfaction, and social activities) every two years. The study team also monitored their subjects' physical health (including blood and urine tests, chest X-rays, and echocardiograms) every five years.

The researchers came away with one key finding: Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. No surprise, people who said they were lonely reported feeling less happy, and exhibited poorer physical and mental health.

Three Key Findings
The report identified three key lessons about relationships and happiness:
  1. Close relationships.  The men in both study groups who reported feeling closer to their families, friends, or communities tended to be happier and healthier than their less social counterparts. They also lived longer. 
  2. Quality (not quantity) of relationships.  It's not just being in a relationship that matters. Married couples who fought constantly and had low affection for one another were less happy than the people who weren't married at all. Men who were the most satisfied with their relationships at age 50 were the healthiest at age 80. The most happily partnered octogenarian men said that on days when they had more physical pain, their good moods remained unchanged. But men in unhappy relationships found that physical pain was magnified by more emotional pain.
  3. Mental health.  Octogenarians who could count on their partners in times of need had memories that remained sharper longer. In that same age group, men who weren't in emotionally dependable relationships experienced earlier memory declines. 
The study also reported that retired men who actively developed new friends to "replace" old workmates remained happier longer.

Robert Waldinger is the director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development.
Click here for the recent Ted talk he gave in the study.

A personal note: Coincidentally late last year I began a series of posts on the friendships that have played such an important part in my life. In the first post in the series, I talked about how my history with friendships has been the opposite of that of most people. I didn't have a lot of friends in high school and my early years at Cornell were probably the loneliest in my life. Today, as I approach age 87, I have more quality friendships than ever.

I'll posts some concluding thoughts on the series one of these days. To locate other posts in the series, put "friends" in the search box at the start of this post.


JM said...

Very nice post, John, it's the clearest short summary of the Harvard study I've read. I continue to be a big fan. :)

John Schappi said...

Thanks John. And speaking of friendships, I recently was selling someone about your workshop in Bangkok. How many years ago? Fond memories.

Anonymous said...

I just discovered your blog. Your post on turmeric was a huge help in choosing a supplement. Will try to catch up with your older posts, but this one caught my eye. You mentioned The Washington Post, so I assume you are in the DC area? How on earth do you make friends in this place, where everyone is either too young, busy, or self-important to say hello or make eye contact? You're right - loneliness is a killer, and it only gets harder with age. Thank you for sharing your struggles and advice with all of us.

John Schappi said...

Fortunately, I've lived here since 1955, spent 40 years working for employee owned company where employees made more lasting friendships than is usual, and then in 1978 came out as a homosexual and an alcoholic which resulted in my acquiring many more friends.