What is the key factor that determines a long healthy life? What makes us healthy and happy throughout our lives? It’s not money or success. Neither is it going to the gym or maintaining a healthy diet. The single most powerful ingredient that determines a long healthy life is something that we usually overlook. It’s something ingrained into the very framework of our existence as human beings.
In 1938, Harvard began a study of a group of 724 young men, from both Harvard and from a poor suburb in Boston and tracked their entire lives up until they were 90 years old. The Boston kids were from some of the poorest families and the roughest neighbourhoods and had the most difficult childhoods from the entire group. The study involved interviews, questionnaires, medical scans of their bodies and brains, videos, pictures, and an in-depth study of their lives gathering all kinds of data.
Usually, studies like this don’t last long, either because funding dries out or because the coming generations of researchers fizz out. However, this particular study is more than 75 years old and is the longest and most comprehensive study on longevity and adult development known to man. The study is now surveying the wives and the 2000 children of the initial 724.
What are the lessons learned from this study? It’s that good relationships keep us happier and healthier.
The 3 biggest lessons the researchers learned about relationships are:
1. Social connections are really good for us and that loneliness kills
The study showed that people who are more socially connected to family, friends and community are happier, healthier and live longer than people who are less connected. Loneliness proves toxic. The people who are more isolated from others find that they are less happy, their health declines earlier in midlife and they live shorter lives.
2. It’s not the quantity but the quality of our close relationships that matter
Living in the midst of conflict is detrimental to our health. The people who lived in the midst of warm, healthy relationships lived longer and the healthy relationships proved to be more protective. Once the subjects were in their 80s, the study ran prediction algorithms on who would turn out healthier and live longer, from the age of 50. It wasn’t their cholesterol levels that determined who would live longer, but it was the people who had closer, more meaningful and cherishable relationships. The people who reported having good, closer relationships were the healthiest at age 80.
3. Good relationships don’t just protect our bodies but they protect our minds
Good relationships buffer us from some of the slings and arrows of getting old. It turns out that being in a securely attached relationship to another person in your 80s makes the brain healthier. The people who reported being in more meaningful relationships with their partners and families had sharper memories and had healthier brains than those that reported otherwise.
In his TED talk, Robert Waldinger the 5th director of the Harvard study reflects on the data from it and tells how our relationships determine how long and healthy we will live.