Zoe Coetzee

Good relationships: the secret to health and happiness

What can we do for a better life? Turns out good relationships are the antidote to life’s stresses and strains. In the longest academic study on human happiness, Harvard has found that good relationships are the secret to happiness and health. The study, which started in the 1930s, has unequivocally established that close connections are an essential ingredient in a happy life. The breakthrough research highlighted relationships as a buffer against not only emotional, but also physical, ailments.

Good relationships come out on top: Harvard’s study on adult development

Harvard Study of Adult Development started in 1938, and has become the longest study of happiness. Starting as a study on adult development, the researchers realized that they had access to an unprecedented set of data. Looking at detailed physical and emotional indicators was tantamount to having insight into a challenging factor to determine – happiness. The access to this expansive information taught them several important secrets about healthy relationships.

The research project, which has now been running close to 80 years, started as a longitudinal study of Adult Development with a focus on psychosocial predictors of health and aging1. The sample group of over 700 men came from two groups, one from Harvard and the other from poor, inner-city Boston, covering a broad socio-economic spectrum and a variety of backgrounds. It has become one of the most inclusive studies on adult life ever conducted. The study has now expanded to include spouses and the second generation of the original sample group.

The researchers recorded their quality of life and experiences, along with their physical health. Every two years conducting surveys on topics such as marriage, career satisfaction and social activities. And every five years medical testing was undertaken, including chest X-rays, blood and urine tests, MRIs and cardiograms. The results have been startling.

The current and fourth director of the study, Robert Waldinger, explains, “The surprising finding is that our relationships and how happy we are in our relationships has a powerful influence on our health”. Waldinger says it wasn’t their cholesterol levels which predicted how they were going to grow old, but rather how satisfied they were in their relationships. “The people who were most satisfied in their relationships at age 50 were the healthiest at age 801”, he confirms.

A good relationship is the best tonic

These results verified that those who were in good relationships lived longer and were happier, says Waldinger1. The research highlighted this time and time again. Those in happier marriages experienced less physical pain, the men with support networks had less mental deterioration as they aged and people who were alone and social loners often died earlier. The findings bring to our attention how very important relationships are, and not any relationships, but healthy relationships.

Good relationships are so powerful that they physically protect our own bodies, even against the ravages of aging and pain. It is love that keeps us happy and healthy, it is the heart that keeps us young and strong. To this end, building strong relationships should be a lifelong pursuit and pleasure.

3 biggest lessons from good relationships:  

 Waldinger, the current director of the project, sums up the three biggest life lessons they have gleaned from the study of good relationships and a good life2

  1. Social connections are really good for us: the study confirmed that the better socially connected people are, the longer they live. People with close relationships, don’t only live longer, but are also healthier. Conversely, loneliness is toxic. Participants who were isolated showed their general health declining earlier, their brains deteriorating at a younger age and lived shorter lives. It is quite simple, the social connections we build buffer us as we age.
  1. Quality not quantity: it is not the number of relationships, but the quality of these connections which define them as good relationships. As caring relationships are protective to our health, so conflict can be even worse than divorce and has an adverse effect on our health. The people in the study who were happiest in their relationships in their 50’s were healthiest in their 80’s. Cultivate deep and meaningful relationships – high quality connections are the elixir of life.
  1. Healthy relationships protect our brains: one of the greatest fears of the aging process is losing our faculties. The study showed that individuals in their 80s who were in securely attached relationships with someone they believed they could count on retained sharper memories. And on the contrary, the people who were alone experienced earlier cognitive decline.

Over the decades and through changing social, economic and political landscapes, healthy relationships and close connections with others, have now been scientifically proven to be the most valuable and treasured asset we can accumulate through our lifetime. Waldinger summarizes their greatest lesson simply, “good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period2”.

Watch him discuss it further in his TED TALK:

How to create good relationships?

So now that we know stable relationships equate with a happier and healthier life, it may leave you wondering how to build good relationships. There is no singular solution to that problem; rather it is a way of approaching the relationships in your life, comprised of countless little acts of love and appreciation. Here are some practical pointers to strengthen your relationships and create solid and enduring relationships in your life.

  1. Focus: when you are with someone, give them your full attention. Put aside distractions and focus on your partner. When your companion gives you their undivided attention, you feel valued and important in their lives.
  2. Be empathetic: the capacity to put yourself in someone else’s shoes creates a deep sense of mutual understanding between people. To be seen and understood is one of the great gifts of a healthy relationship, creating a deep connection based on real understanding.
  3. Be interested: ask questions and follow up on the important moments. Take or create the opportunities to get to know your partner on every level, from the minutia of everyday life to their secret dreams and desires.
  4. Value respect and honesty: above all else, treat those you care about with respect and be honest, building a strong foundation. Being respected makes someone feel secure and admired in the relationship. Even small indiscretions and deceptions can be the undoing of a relationship – but the truth gives you the lasting platform of a relationship built on trust.
  5. Say ‘I love you’: don’t take for granted that your partner just knows you love them, say it daily. Saying ‘I love you’ not only shows your appreciation and is an active expression of your feelings, it also increases the feelings of love in your partner, develops your emotional connection and lowers stress levels for both of you.

Our health and happiness is buffered or broken by the quality of the relationships we have nurtured in life. Through this lens, good relationships can be seen as the golden standard of accomplishment. It does seem to be truer than true – the best things in life are indeed free.

Read more: Living your best life? Learn more about mindful dating here.

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