Every year, at the end of the summer, when I have returned from our trip home to visit family, usually combined with a little holiday somewhere else in Europe, I am in a contemplative mood. I wonder what creates the happy and content feeling of the summer and how to keep it going the rest of the year. In previous years, I have written about vacations being a Vacation Away From My Planner Self, about Our Vacation Self and whether Vacations Make Us Happier.
As uncovered in previous years, the link is not a direct link between holiday time and happiness. There is, however, a correlation of happiness and spending time with family or close friends. The level of happiness is not dependent on the fact whether I can afford to go on vacation, but it is dependent on what I do during my time off. Deep nurturing connections, love, laughter, support, and acceptance are all factors in our experience of happiness. Spending time with a loving partner, or having fun with your family members or people who you feel close to, have the effect to increase your happiness.
One of the longest studies on happiness is the Harvard Study of Adult Development. For 75 years, several generations of researchers tracked the lives of 724 men from two very different walks of life. 60 of those 724 men are still alive today. Perhaps a bit gender biased in the original set-up when first started in 1938, the study at a later point included their wives as well. One group of the participants in the study started out as Harvard sophomores who almost all went to serve in WWII after college. The second group consisted of boys from one of the poorest neighbourhoods in Boston, young men from some of the most troubled and disadvantaged families.
Robert Waldinger, the 4th director of this study, reports about the findings and lessons on happiness in his excellent TED Talk “What makes a good life? Lessons from the longest study on happiness.”
The one main lesson that stands out in this 75-year-long study is that happiness is “not about wealth or fame or working harder” (Waldinger). Instead, the one important insight not to miss is that “good relationships keep us happier and healthier” (Waldinger).
The Harvard researchers have learned three important facts:
- Social connections with our family, our friends, and our community are extremely beneficial for us. They keep us physically healthier and allow us to live longer.
- It is not enough to have relationships, for example to be married or have family, but the quality of our close relationships matters. High conflict marriages in which we feel lonely and unsupported are detrimental to our health. When we are in a relationship with little affection or with toxic interactions, the stress and loneliness shorten our lives. Living in the midst of good warm relationships, on the other hand, is protective.
The Harvard researchers found that they could predict—based on the relationships people were in during their 50ties—how healthy they would be at age 80. The men who were the most satisfied in their relationships at age 50 were the healthiest at age 80. In addition, most happily married men and women reported that on days when they had most physical pain, their mood still stayed positive. Men and women in unhappy relationships, on the other hand, experienced that their physical pain was magnified by their emotional pain.
- The study also showed that good relationships do not just protect our physical bodies, but they also protect our brains from decline. There was a clear correlation about being in a securely attached relationship in your 80ties and memory loss. Happily married people experienced that their memories stayed sharper longer. Those people who were in relationships wherein they felt unloved and felt that they couldn’t count on their partner experienced greater memory decline.
This does not mean that we have to always get along well. Relationships don’t have to be smooth all the time to be healthy. Waldinger reports that some couples could bicker day in and day out, but as long as they felt that they could count on one another when the going got tough, those arguments didn’t take a toll. That is in line with John Gottman‘s research findings. He showed that marriages don’t suffer because of arguments, but that it depends on how a couple argues and what basis the relationship has.
As humans, we like a quick fix, but as Walding points out, “relationships are complicated, messy and hard work” and that this work never ends. I would like to add that relationships are also full of moments which are simple, joyful and easy. However, relationships always require attention and effort.
The people in the study who were the happiest in their 80ties were the ones who had “leaned into relationships with family, friends and community”. What does it mean to lean into your relationships?
It starts with making time for family and friends, or doing something new together with a loved one, or reaching out to that family member you haven’t spoken to in years. Forgiveness, letting go, healing our own wounds, opening our hearts, reaching out to have difficult conversations, and communicating successfully are all part of building relationships which keep us healthy and happy.
Relationship Energetics provides you with tools and opportunities to build a good long life by building better relationships. Join Dhebi DeWitz and myself for the three day
Relationship Energetics Training
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