Robert Waldinger presented a Tedx talk last year about what makes a good life? He asks the questions “what keeps us healthy and happy as we go through life? If you were going to invest now in your future best self, where would you put your time and your energy?” He tells of a study where children born in the year 2000 were asked what their most important life goals were, and over 80% of them said that a major life goal for them was to get rich. Another 50% of those same young adults said that another major life goal was to become famous. There was no mention of being content, healthy or happy.
The Harvard Study of Adult Development for 75 years, tracked the lives of 724 men, year after year, asking about their work, their home lives, their health, and of course all this without anyone knowing how their lives were going to turn out.
Studies like this are exceedingly rare. Almost all projects of this kind fall apart within a decade because too many people drop out of the study, or funding for the research dries up, or the researchers get distracted, or they die. But through a combination of luck and the persistence of several generations of researchers, this study has survived. About 60 of the original 724 men are still alive, still participating in the study, most of them now in their 90s.
HOW THE LIFE STUDY WORKS
Since 1938, the study has tracked the lives of two groups of men. The first group started in the study when they were sophomores at Harvard College. They all finished college during World War II, and then most went off to serve in the war. And the second group was a group of boys from Boston’s poorest neighborhoods, chosen for the study specifically because they were from some of the most troubled and disadvantaged families in the 1930s. Most lived in tenements, many without hot and cold running water.
When they entered the study, all of these teenagers were interviewed. They were given medical examinations. Researchers went to their homes and interviewed their parents. These teenagers grew up into adults who entered all walks of life. They became factory workers and lawyers and bricklayers and doctors, one President of the United States. Some developed alcoholism. A few developed schizophrenia. Some climbed the social ladder from the bottom all the way to the very top, and some made that journey in the opposite direction.
The founders of this study would never in their wildest dreams have imagined that 75 years later, the study still continues. Every two years, dedicated research staff, phone the men and ask if they would complete one more set of questions about their lives. Many of the inner city Boston men ask us, “Why do you keep wanting to study me? My life just isn’t that interesting.” The Harvard men never ask that question.
To get the clearest picture of these lives, the researchers don’t just send them questionnaires. They interview them in their living rooms. Get medical records from their doctors. Take samples of their blood, scan their brains, talk to their children. They videotape them talking with their wives about their deepest concerns. And when, about a decade ago, they finally asked the wives if they would join as members of the study, many of the women said, “it’s about time.”
FINDINGS FROM THE STUDY
So what has been learned from all of this? What are the lessons that come from the tens of thousands of pages of information collected about these lives? There is little about wealth or fame or working harder. The clearest message that we get from this 75-year study is this: Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. This is nothing new, I hear you say but do you know why good relationships keep us happier and healthier?
The first discovery is that loneliness kills and social connections are really positive for us. It has been proven that people who are more socially connected to family, to friends, to community, are happier, they’re physically healthier, and they live longer than people who are less well connected. The experience of loneliness can be toxic. 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.
We know that you can be lonely in a crowd and you can be lonely in a marriage, so the second big lesson learned is that it’s not just the number of friends you have, and it’s not whether or not you’re in a committed relationship, but it’s the quality of your close relationships that matters. Living in the midst of conflict is really bad for our health. High-conflict marriages, for example, without much affection, turn out to be very bad for our health, perhaps worse than getting divorced. And living in the midst of good, warm relationships is protective.
One part of the research followed the men all the way into their 80s, then looked back at them at midlife to see if it could be predicted who was going to grow into a happy, healthy octogenarian and who wasn’t. When the information was gathered – everything 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. And good, close relationships seem to buffer from the slings and arrows of getting old. The most happily partnered men and women reported, in their 80s, that on the days when they had more physical pain, their mood stayed just as happy. But the people who were in unhappy relationships, on the days when they reported more physical pain, it was magnified by more emotional pain.
The third big lesson learned about relationships and one’s health is that good relationships don’t just protect our bodies, they protect our brains. It turns out that being in a securely attached relationship to another person in your 80s is protective, that the people who are in relationships where they really feel they can count on the other person in times of need, those people’s memories stay sharper longer. And the people in relationships where they feel they really can’t count on the other one, those are the people who experience earlier memory decline. And apparently those good relationships don’t have to be smooth all the time. Some of our octogenarian couples could bicker with each other daily but as long as they felt that they could really count on the other when the going got tough, those arguments didn’t take a toll on their memories.
THE WISDOM OF OLD…
So why do we ignore this wisdom of old, that good, close relationships are good for our health and well-being? Probably because relationships are messy and complicated and the hard work of tending to family and friends is not sexy or glamorous. It’s also life-long. It never ends. The people in the 75-year study who were the happiest in retirement were the people who had actively worked to replace workmates with new retired mates. Just like the millennials in that recent survey, many of the men when they were starting out as young adults, really believed that fame and wealth and high achievement were what they needed to go after to have a good life. But over and over, throughout these 75 years, the study has shown that the people who fared the best were the people who made an effort and contribution to relationships, with family, with friends, with community.
So what about you? Whether you are 25, 40, or 60 there is no time like the present to make healthy relationships your number one priority. What can I do? you may ask. It might be something as simple as replacing screen time with talk time or livening up a stale relationship by doing something new together, long walks or date nights, or reaching out to that family member you haven’t spoken to in years, because those all-too-common family feuds take a terrible toll on the people who hold the grudges.