Harvard Study of Adult Development
About 85 years ago, researchers at Harvard University began the Harvard Study of Adult Development, which continues today. It’s the longest-running such study on the planet. The study encompassed two very different groups. One included undergrads at Harvard beginning in 1938. The other included 456 inner-city (generally low-income) boys from Boston’s West end.
The primacy of warm, social connections
Robert Waldinger at Harvard is the current study director. He and his co-director collaborator, Marc Schulz at Bryn Mawr College, summarized the findings from the first 85 years of the study in their highly readable new book, The Good Life. It makes the case that developing warm social connections is the most important thing you can do to achieve the good life once you secure the basic necessities of life. Consider this finding: Study participants who were most satisfied in their relationships at age 50 were the healthiest (mentally and physically) at age 80.
Waldinger and Schulz found overwhelming evidence that good relationships keep us healthier and happier. Period. In this book, happiness largely refers to what psychologists call eudaimonic well-being, which emphasizes meaning and purpose in life rather than more fleeting hedonic happiness. For example, the sublime pleasure of eating a piece of my wife's lime meringue pie. Co-author Marc thinks thriving and flourishing better capture the essence of a good life, because they suggest an active and constant state of becoming.
Social ties and mortality
Psychologist Juliette Holt-Lunstad (Holt-Lunstad et al. 2010) found that the mortality risk of people with the fewest as opposed to the most social ties was 2.3 and 2.8 times higher risk of dying during the study for men and women, respectively. A follow-up study produced similar results for loneliness (Holt-Lunstad et al. 2015). People with more social connections had lower risk of dying at any age.
Many of us may not know what’s good for us. Money, achievement, and status tend to overtake other life priorities, especially when money changes from being a useful tool to being the point of living. A focus on worldly matters can obscure the more fundamental importance of living with purpose and finding meaning in life, in part through warm social connections.
It’s worth your while to periodically reflect on what you have and what you want in life. Honestly considering your life is a required first step to move toward the good life.
The evolutionary basis of social connections
It’s not surprising that Cultivate Social Connections occupies the pantheon of healthy lifestyle choices. Yet, as Waldinger and Schulz note, "the shadow of loneliness and social disconnections haunts our modern “connected” world". We humans have evolved to be connected to other humans. Positive relationships are essential to human well-being. Social connections are important for people in all neighborhoods in all countries. The good life comes not from the self but from warm connections to others.
Where do you invest your time?
If you accept the wisdom and evidence that social relationships are among your most valuable tools for improving your health, happiness, and well-being, then choosing to invest time and energy in social relationships becomes vitally important. Harvard study participants in their 70s and 80s valued most highly their relationships with family and friends. Do you direct your attention toward people you love?
Waldinger and Schulz cite approvingly the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn who helped put mindfulness on the popular culture map. Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness as ”the awareness that merges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment. And non-judgmentally to things as they are.” Warm personal relationships require successful communication, which involves a sincere effort to understand and to emphasize with the other person. Cultivate a bedrock of affection and empathy (curiosity and willingness to listen) for other people, particularly your family and friends. If you’re in a committed relationship, find ways to catch your partner doing things that you appreciate.
Waldinger and Schulz suggest the WISER model to deal effectively with emotionally challenging situations and relationships. WISER is an acronym for Watch, Interpret, Select, Engage, and Reflect. Using the model can help you avoid unhelpful reactive comments and behaviors that you’ll later regret.The key is to replace an automatic (often angry) reaction and with a more considered response.
Your ability to process emotions effectively comprises a critical link between childhood experience and positive adult social connections is . You can get better at managing your feelings at any age. Regardless of your age, it’s never too late to make positive turns in your life. Good relationships will keep you happier and healthier, thereby helping you live better and longer.
I recommend reading The Good Life. You’ll find plenty of reasons in the book to pay more time and attention to the social relationships in your life. If so, you'll be amply rewarded.