I’m sure you have heard many times that wealth, fame and working harder really doesn’t lead to happiness. Most of us know that logically, although we continue to strive diligently for some of these. But, did you know “loneliness kills; that it is toxic to us?” Would you believe that living in a high conflict marriage is terrible for your health? Did you know a great deal of your brain health and functioning relies on you being in a good relationship? It actually “protects” your brain.
The “clearest message” that came out of a 75-year Harvard study is that:
“Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period.”
Robert Waldinger directed the study that generated tens of thousands of pages of data on the lives of over 700 people. (See his Ted Talk: “What makes a good life”). When they gathered what they knew about the people at age 50 they found “the people who were the most satisfied in their relationships at age 50 were the healthiest at age 80.”
Happiness is all about how satisfied we are in relationships,
not about working harder and harder!
Three Big Lessons from Waldinger and the Study:
- Social connections are good for us, and loneliness kills. They found people who are more socially connected to family, friends, and community are happier, physically healthier, and live longer than less connected people. People who are more isolated from others than they want to find that they are less happy, their health declines earlier in midlife, their brain functioning declines sooner and they live shorter lives than people who are not lonely. At any given time, more than one in five Americans will report that they’re lonely.
- The second big lesson learned is that it’s not just the number of friends you have, but the quality of close relationships that matters. Living amid conflict is bad for our health. High-conflict marriages without much affection turn out to be very bad for our health. But living in good, warm relationships is protective.
The most happily partnered men and women reported in their 80s, that on the days when they had more physical pain, their mood stayed just as happy. But the people who were in unhappy relationships, on the days when they reported more physical pain, it was magnified by more emotional pain.
- The third big lesson learned about relationships and health is those good relationships don’t just protect our bodies, they protect our brains. Being in a securely attached relationship to another person in your 80s is protective. People who are in relationships where they feel they can count on the other person in times of need, those people’s memories stay sharper longer. When they feel they can’t count on their partner, they experience earlier memory decline.
Good relationships don’t have to be smooth all the time. Some of the octogenarian couples in the study could bicker with each other. But if they felt that they could count on the other when the going got tough, those arguments didn’t take a toll on their memories.
So, let’s say we believe this and we already “know this.”
What do we do about it?
- First, don’t float. Don’t be passive in your relationships. Be intentional to put the awareness and effort toward making your relationship great. Don’t allow the business of life, the obstacles and hardships distract you from loving your partner well.
- Have fun. Be social. Relish the happy moments together and with friends. Laughter is the best medicine. Enjoy mutual activities together often.
- Manage conflict well. Learn good skills for dealing with differences and difficulties. Learn to regulate your emotions so you can be careful with strong emotions that can lead to harsh behaviors.
- Make sure you are consistently adding appreciation and gratitude into the relationship. Don’t get lax on your affections for one another.
- Be diligent to always “turn toward” your partner. Being there for your partner means you feel you can count on each other, and it builds trust.
- Stay connected. To your partner and other close relationships.
This sounds easy and logical! They are the actions and processes we naturally do when we are “IN Love” at the beginning of our romantic relationships. But not as simple when life is happening all around us. Consistent awareness and being intentional toward the relationship is what will get us to 50 years, 80 years and beyond!