Robert Waldinger, director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, says one of the biggest surprises they found was that what makes people happy is also what helps keep them healthy — relationships. The research project, the longest-running in-depth study of physical and mental well-being among adults, began in 1938 with 724 participants: 268 Harvard College sophomores and 456 young adults from Boston. It now includes 1,300 descendants of its original participants.
The Gazette caught up with Waldinger about his new book, “The Good Life,” which he co-wrote with Marc Schulz. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Gazette: One of the conclusions of your book involves how good relationships are essential for physical and mental well-being. Did researchers expect this to be true?
Waldinger: As part of the study, we followed our first generation of participants throughout their adult lives – from adolescence to old age. By the time they hit 80, we realized that we had all this data about their physical and mental health that we collected year after year.
We began to wonder if we could look back into our participants’ lives in midlife and see what the greatest predictors of who would be happy and healthy in their 80s were. We thought that cholesterol level or blood pressure at age 50 would be more important. They were not. It was satisfaction in their relationships, especially in their marriages, that was the best indicator of a happy and healthy life.
At first we didn’t believe it; we were wondering how this could be possible. We thought, “It makes sense that if you have happy relationships, you’ll be happier, but how could the quality of your relationships make you more or less likely to have coronary artery disease, type 2 diabetes, or arthritis?” We thought maybe this isn’t a real find, maybe it’s by chance. Then other research groups started to find the same thing. Now it’s a very robust finding. It’s pretty well established that interpersonal connection and the quality of those connections really do affect health as well as happiness.
Is there solid medical evidence to support how good relationships can affect physical health?
Some people might think this discovery is too delicate, right? The question you’re asking is exactly what the researchers were asking, which is, “How does this work? What would be the mechanism by which relationships affect physiology?” We’ve spent the last 10 years in our lab studying this. The best hypothesis for which good data exists suggests that it is about stress and the regulation of stress by our relationships.
First, stress is a natural part of life. It happens every day for most of us: something is going to happen that is going to stress us out, and when that happens, the body goes into fight-or-flight mode. When this happens, you may feel your heart rate increase, your blood pressure rise, you may start to sweat, and this is normal because we want the body to prepare itself to face a challenge. But when the challenge is removed, we want the body to come back into balance. For example, if something upsetting happens during the day and I’m agitated or ruminating about it, I’ll go home and talk to my wife or a friend, and if that person is a good listener, I can literally feel my body. to calm down.
But if you don’t have someone like that, and a lot of people don’t, if you’re isolated or don’t have a confidant, what we think happens is the body goes into sort of fight-or-flight mode, and that means that there are higher levels of circulating stress hormones and higher levels of inflammation, and these things can gradually wear down many systems in the body. This is how we think stress can wear down various body systems and how good relationships can protect our health.
How about career and financial success? Are they as important as good relationships?
Of course, it’s important to have work that you like or care about and that you find meaningful. Having a job you hate decreases your well-being for sure. But what we know from good studies is that wealth does not significantly increase well-being when our basic needs are met. Once you get beyond basic financial security, your happiness doesn’t increase much.
Likewise, fame or great accomplishments — becoming a Harvard professor or winning the Nobel Prize — won’t make you any happier. Perhaps the work that won you the Nobel Prize is meaningful to you and can make you happy. But badges of achievement and badges of wealth don’t make people happy. This is important to keep in mind because we tell each other a lot of stories about what will make us happy. We get these messages all day from ads that convey the message that if you just buy this you’ll be happier, or they show people living beautiful, rich lives, and that’s the key to a happy life. Turns out this isn’t true.
Her book highlights the importance of having good relationships with your parents, siblings, neighbors, coworkers, and even acquaintances. Can you expand on this?
There is no set number of connections you need to have. If you have everything you need in your family, great. Maybe you don’t need a wider circle. But what we found is that the benefits of relationships come from everywhere. They certainly come from family, but they can come from friends, work colleagues, and we even feel a bit of well-being in a conversation with the person who makes us coffee in the cafeteria or in a conversation with the cashier who checks us in the supermarket or the postman. If we have pleasant connections with these people, they will also contribute to our well-being.
Some of us are more shy and some of us are more outgoing. Shy people need fewer relationships, while an extrovert needs more. What we see in our research is that everyone needs at least one solid relationship, someone they feel they can rely on in times of need. In one of our questionnaires, we asked participants, “Who would you call in the middle of the night if you were sick or scared? List them all.” Most people could list multiple people, but some people, even some who were married, couldn’t list anyone. We think everyone needs at least one person who you know would be there for you.
What is the impact of loneliness on your physical health? In your book, you write that loneliness can be as dangerous to your health as smoking or being obese.
We think it operates through this chronic stress mechanism – that loneliness is a stressor. We evolved to be social creatures because it was safer to be in a group. If you think about when we were trying to survive in the wilderness, you realize that people who stick together survive longer. Our hypothesis is that there was genetic selection for being more social. Being alone is a stressor; being isolated is a stressor. Many people feel chronically insecure when they are alone. If you’re alone and you’re content, that’s different. But if you’re alone and you feel stressed and lonely, that’s part of what takes a toll on your health. That’s why we think loneliness is as dangerous to health as smoking half a pack of cigarettes a day or being obese. Loneliness has a similar physiological fingerprint to these other two problems.
What if people think it’s too late to have good relationships?
What we’ve found from following thousands of people is that many people who thought it was too late for them, who thought, “I’m not good at relationships,” found relationships at a time when they didn’t expect it. We have a story in the book of a man who retired. He didn’t have a good marriage and he never had any friends. He joined a gym and found a group of friends who became his tribe and they started to socialize. And he wrote to us saying that he was happier than ever because he had these people in his life. We meet people who find love in their 70s and 80s that they never expected. Based on our science, we can say that it’s never too late. And if you think you’re never going to have good relationships, you’re not sure. It’s worth the effort. People can make an effort.
What steps should people take to start working on building good relationships?
We talk in the book about what we call “social aptitude.” The reason we call it that is to frame it as analogous to physical fitness. We think of physical fitness as a practice, as something we do to maintain our bodies. Our social life is a living system and it also needs maintenance. One of the ways to do this is through small actions. You might be thinking right now, “Who do I miss? Who would I like to see more of? Who do I not have contact with?” and text them, email them, or call them. You’ll be amazed at the positive responses you get for this little action.
The advice I’d like to give is that there are some small actions we can take to liven up our social world. The other thing is to think about how you can make new connections, and probably one of the easiest ways to do that is to do something that you like or enjoy doing and do it alongside other people. It could be a bowling league, a gardening club, a knitting group, a political campaign, or work to prevent climate change. Just remember that when you do something you enjoy in a group, you already have something in common with the people you’re with. It’s a natural place to start conversations, and what we’ve found is that when people repeatedly have casual contact with the same people, this is the easiest place to start deepening relationships.
One last point I want to make is that no one is happy all the time. This is important to know because we can end up believing that if we’re not happy all the time, we’re doing something wrong. No life is happy all the time. Every life is full of challenges and hard times. This idea of strengthening relationships is a way to increase our happiness, but also to build a safety net that helps us face the difficult times that we all go through in our lives.
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