Almost 80 years ago, a group of researchers at Harvard embarked on a research project that still continues today – one which has tracked the lives of 724 men and investigated their health (mental and physical), professional lives, as well as relationships.
In looking at the key factors in building a fulfilling, long life – this study has some surprising insights, which can help you appropriately invest your time and energy.
1 – Wealth, Fame, and Hard Work have Little Impact
So many of us get caught up in the rat race – pursuing success in the hopes of creating better more fulfilling lives, and supporting the people we love. A recent study asked millennials about their life goals – with 80% indicating wealth and 50% fame related goals. Metrics echoed by the study’s participants when they were of similar age, who said that they believed that wealth, fame and high achievement were key.
However, after studying the tens of thousands of pages of information gathered on the lives of the men, these metrics were not supported by the data. So if these typically accepted metrics of a good life didn’t stand out – what did?
People who fared the best were those who invested in deep connection with others – prioritized friends, family and community; those who leaned into relationships rather than success.
2 – Both Ongoing Conflict and Loneliness can be Toxic
When trying to determine what factors would be key in predicting future health and happiness – surprisingly it wasn’t middle age cholesterol levels, but rather how satisfied the participants felt in their relationships.
Living surrounded by high conflict is exceptionally bad for our health. The participants who were in unhappy marriages, for example, reported magnified physical pain levels (while participants with close relationships pain seemed buffered by support, and happiness levels were not altered significantly during painful periods).
On the other hand, loneliness and isolation was also found to have significant impacts, including: faster midlife health decline, reduced brain functioning, and shorter lives. Loneliness does not only affect people who live alone – a surprising 1 in 5 Americans say they are – and this includes those who are married.
In both cases, the key to finding solutions was to learn healthy ways of managing stress and relieving anxiety in order to tackle the problems head on. These adaptive coping methods included:
- Sublimation – turning a bad feeling or situation, into actionable solutions
- Altruism – helping yourself, through helping others
- Suppression – putting worries out of mind, until an action can be taken
Not only did the participants who used adaptive coping methods deal with stress more effectively, they also had better relationships: others enjoyed their company, leading to more social support (resulting in healthier aging, and brains that stayed sharper longer).
3 – Deep Connection is Key (Quality not Quantity)
The final key take-away, was not only that connection was important, but the quality of those connections was critical where as the number of friends, or whether one was in a committed relationship mattered significantly less.
Having even one securely attached relationship (a relationship where you can really count on one another, even if you sometimes disagree) protects our health and mind – with research backing strong correlations to longer life spans and sharper memories in old age.
Warm and nurturing relationships with your parents was a strong predicting factor in if you will have secure relationships when your an adult – and those with a close relationship with at least one sibling were less likely to become depressed. However, if you didn’t have an especially nurturing childhood all is not lost, as the study also found that by middle age (50-65) those who helped to establish and guide the next generation, were happier and better adjusted than those who didn’t. Giving back (or ‘generativity’) can happen in many ways – from mentoring younger adults to being a parent yourself.
There isn’t time, so brief is life, for bickerings, apologies, heartburnings, callings to account. There is only time for loving, and but an instant, so to speak, for that.
So, what does this all mean for you? Relationships are complicated, take effort to cultivate, and frankly can get a bit downright messy at times – but equally investing in improving your closest relationships is the most important thing you can do for your health and happiness, now and in the future.
The real question is – are you willing to put in the effort?
What did you think would have been the strongest predictors of happiness? Have you ever experienced ongoing conflict in a relationship? What are your experiences with loneliness? How do you manage stress and anxiety? Do you have someone in your life you can really count on? Would love to hear your thoughts below!
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