Wellbeing and Mental Health

Scientists have found the key to a healthy, happy life: our relationships

Research shows relationships with other people that give us the greatest happiness.

Research shows relationships with other people that give us the greatest happiness. Image: Unsplash/alexblock

Douglas Broom
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SDG 03: Good Health and Well-Being

This article is part of: Centre for Health and Healthcare

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  • People with strong relationships live longer, and they’re happier and healthier too, according to an 85-year Harvard study.
  • The longest study of happiness ever conducted concludes that “social fitness” is as important as physical fitness.
  • While a survey by the World Economic Forum found that staying healthy in later life was the top concern for most people.

Scientists say we’re all living longer which sounds like good news. But the prospect of lifespans stretching to almost 100 years has prompted new worries about health, wealth and happiness in later life.

A survey by the World Economic Forum and Mercer for their report Living Longer, Better: Understanding Longevity Literacy found that staying healthy in later life was the top concern for most people, followed by having enough money and enjoying life.

While the report recommends a range of strategies to prepare us for a “multistage life” – in which the traditional concept of retirement is replaced by a mix of leisure, volunteering and work – there may be a simpler answer.

The latest discovery from what is believed to be the longest study into human happiness suggests that the secret of a long and healthy life lies in forging and maintaining good, close relationships with other people.

Strong relationships are the key to long, healthy lives.
Strong relationships are the key to long, healthy lives. Image: Pixabay/Anja

Scientists at Harvard University have been seeking the key to a happy life since 1938, in the longest study into happiness ever conducted. After 85 years of research, they’ve concluded that it is our relationships with other people that give us the greatest happiness.

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The Harvard Study of Adult Development started out by tracking the lives of teenagers from across the socio-economic spectrum, ranging from university undergraduates to those from the poorest neighbourhoods. Participants included the late President John F Kennedy.

Regardless of their backgrounds, those with the strongest personal relationships were not only the happiest but also enjoyed the best overall health and lived longest. The study continues to this day, although only a handful of the original participants are still alive.

Strong relationships help you live longer

“Clearly research suggests that good social relationships can have a positive impact on mental health, leading to better overall well-being, and potentially contributing to a longer life”, says Shyam Bishen, head of the Centre for Health and Healthcare at the World Economic Forum.

“Strong social connections can provide emotional support, reduce stress, and increase feelings of happiness and belonging, which in turn may have beneficial effects on physical health and promote a longer and healthier life”, says Bishen.

Researchers have moved on to studying the descendants of the original study group, but they are still analyzing the data gathered over the past eight decades and their latest findings are based on analysis of how the people in the study coped with retirement.

It turns out that what people miss most when they stop working at the end of their careers is not the work itself, but their workplace relationships. So the report urges workers to focus on building good relationships with colleagues while they are still at work.

“The people who were happiest, who stayed healthiest as they grew old, and who lived the longest were the people who had the warmest connections with other people,” said Professor Robert Waldinger, the current director of the study.

Harvard professor Robert Waldinger
Harvard professor Robert Waldinger: happy people live longer. Image: robertwaldinger.com

The health benefits of ‘social fitness’

Interviewed for McKinsey Author Talks to mark the launch of his new book The Good Life: Lessons from the World’s Longest Scientific Study of Happiness, Waldinger said his team were surprised by the connection that emerged between relationships and health.

“We didn’t believe our own data at first,” he said. “It stands to reason that you’d be happier if you had good relationships – those two things go together – but how could good relationships predict that you’d be less likely to get coronary artery disease or type 2 diabetes or arthritis?

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“Many other studies began to find the same thing, and now, we’ve spent the past 10 years in our lab unpacking this and trying to figure out how exactly this works.”

Waldinger says “social fitness” is as important as physical fitness and he believes that one of the key health benefits from good relationships is that they help people cope better with everyday stress.

“If you don’t have people to help you weather the inevitable stresses that come along, the body stays in a low-level fight-or-flight mode, with higher levels of circulating stress hormones and higher levels of inflammation, and we know that those things gradually wear away many different body systems,” he added.

People who are well socially connected also live longer than those who are isolated. “Taking care of your body is important, but tending to your relationships is a form of self-care too. That, I think, is the revelation,” Waldinger told the Harvard Gazette.

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