Imagine if you could track someone’s life from a teenager to old age.
Where every two years you have the opportunity to ask them questions about their home and work life, discuss their deepest concerns, take blood, read their medical notes, talk to their partner and children, even scan their brain!
Surely this would be better than asking someone in their 80s to remember their personal hopes and aspirations spanning back many decades ago.
This type of research would definitely give us a clearer picture of what makes some people live longer than others. It would allow us to truly understand what ultimately makes someone happier.
Fortunately, such a piece of research is alive and kicking. In fact, it isn’t just one person being tracked, but instead, it is 724 men, started over 75 years ago in Boston. Furthermore, about 60 are still alive today and the research continues to track over 2000 children from the original 724 men.
This amazing piece of ongoing research and study is called The Harvard Study of Adult Development. Their current director is Robert Waldinger and I highly recommend you watch his short 15 minutes TEDx presentation on what we can all learn from the conclusions he has drawn from this study. There’s a full transcription of his superb talk.
As you can imagine a lot has happened to these men since 1938, when aged 19, they agreed to take part in this study. One even went on to become the President of the United States!
Waldinger uses this Tedx presentation to explain one overwhelming life lesson from the tens of thousands of documented pages. Whilst you would be forgiven to thinking this lesson may relate to working harder or generating more wealth, it’s simply the following statement:
Good relationships keep us happier and healthier.
He goes on to point out three key lessons about relationships. I grant you they aren’t revolutionary, but nevertheless they may well be the catalyst to a happier life.
Firstly, social connections are really good for us, and loneliness kills. We should look to actively be connected to family, friends and our community. It will make us happier. It was distressing to hear the toxic effect being lonely has had on some of the mens in this study. It has a detrimental effect on our health and leads to a shorter life.
Secondly, it’s the quality of your close relationships that matter. Good, close relationships enable people to fend off ill health better than those in unsupportive relationships.
Thirdly, good relationships don’t just protect our bodies, they protect our brains. For example being surrounded by people you can count on ensures a better likelihood of maintaining a sharper memory.
In the final five minutes of his presentation, Waldinger asks the audience if having close relationships are so good for our health and well-being, why do we as a race sometimes struggle to maintain and develop them. He discusses the simple fact that as humans we are not always best equipped to deal with how messy and complicated relationships can get. We often like to seek a quick fix. It’s hard work and often easiest to steer away from the conflict.
It’s fair to say if you are starting your young adult life, focused on achieving greater wealth and status in the quest for a good and happy life, one could easily overlook your relationships. If this is you perhaps this study will give you a reason to reconsider.
If you are older, into your 40s or approaching retirement, Waldinger suggests there’s an immense benefit to be had from leaning into relations with family, friends and your community. Making the extra effort is worth it, because ultimately we know the reward is a good and happy life.