My grandmother once told me this little story that stuck with me. One afternoon at a doctor’s appointment, her doctor moved her large purse to another chair and remarked how heavy it was. “You must be very rich,” he said to her. “I am,” she said affirmatively.
My grandparents lived modestly, still in the narrow two-bedroom rowhouse where she’d raised her family since her husband returned from World War II. They didn’t travel, eat lavish meals or shop at the finest department stores. Neither had careers that followed their passions. (She would have been an amazing teacher, he an exquisite artist.) Yet, she genuinely considered herself rich because she had a husband, children and grandchildren whom she adored.
My grandmother knew what Harvard researchers have since confirmed: Relationships are the key to a happy life.
Robert Waldinger, a Harvard psychiatrist, took over the more than 75-year-long Grant Study in 2003, becoming the fourth person to run it. He recently gave a TedTalk on it that has been viewed more than 6.5 million times since November 2015.
Waldinger felt it was important to do it. The federal government had spent millions on the study for decades, but everyday taxpayers didn’t really know what was discovered.
And there’s certainly an appetite for knowing what makes a good life.
The longest study of human development, the ongoing Grant Study is a decades-long project that began following the lives of Harvard University men selected in 1938 – among them President John F. Kennedy and former Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee – and tracked every aspect of their lives. In the 1970s, that study teamed with a similar one that had been following a group of young men from inner-city Boston tenements since the 1940s. That has allowed them to contrast social status and upbringings, but otherwise everyone in the study is a white male.
Periodically the men’s physical and emotional well-being are assessed. Recently that has included genetic testing. Many conclusions have been gleaned from monitoring these lives from young adult through old age, but to Waldinger there’s one clear takeaway: The happiest and healthiest participants in both groups were the ones who maintained close, intimate relationships.
Waldinger, an Iowan who went to Harvard for undergrad and never left, has known the answer for years. He’s studied relationships his whole career and brought that perspective with him to the study. His first grant proposal as director was to invite the wives of the men – those still alive then in their 80s – to examine the impact of marriages on physical health.
Those satisfied in their relationships were happier and healthier. It was that simple.
“People who are more isolated than they want to be from others 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,” Waldinger said in his TedTalk. “And good, close relationships seem to buffer us from some of the slings and arrows of getting old.”
Waldinger wants people to realize that the commercial projection of a good life – wealth, fame, career success – won’t bring them health or happiness. It’s the work they put into maintaining connections with other human beings that will.
Quality and intimacy, as well as stability and consistency also matter. Casual relationships, like the ones forged on social media won’t do; neither will contentious ones like an abusive marriage or an unreliable friend.
Most of the men in the late 1930s believed career achievement equated a good life. But Waldinger says it’s just as important to work harder on relationships. And for personal happiness, more so.
Since doing the TedTalk, Waldinger has received hundreds of emails. He’s started a blog to continue the conversation about what makes a good life.
He said messages range from, “I always knew it was true, but look around and people act like it’s not what is important,” to “What if you are totally alone and have no one in your life?”
To the latter he recommends they seek out ways to connect with other people, perhaps by volunteering to help people who are lonely, like the elderly.
“It’s useful to know it’s a choice worth making,” he said.
His research has inspired him to make his own changes. In his field, there is a lot of pressure to continue researching and publishing. But he’s realized that it’s his role as teacher – the connection between mentor and student – that is more satisfying, so he’s invested more time in that.
It has also spurred him to consciously reach out more to friends who are sick or struggling, even if it feels uncomfortable, because he knows how much that connection will mean to them.
“What we’d really like is a quick fix, something we can get that’ll make our lives good and keep them that way,” Waldinger said in his TedTalk. “Relationships are messy and they’re complicated and the hard work of tending to family and friends, it’s not sexy or glamorous. It’s also lifelong. It never ends.”
So, go take that longer lunch break with your co-worker. Call a friend for a long overdue catch up. It’s good for your health.