The Key to a Long and Happy Life

In 1938, Harvard researchers began to study a group of sophomores at the then-all-male school. The goal of the study was to “identify the psychosocial predictors of healthy aging.” Today, the longitudinal study, known as the Harvard Study of Adult Development, has gone on for 80 years and has even expanded to include some of the children of the original 268 men. With the only living subjects of the study now in their 90s, what has been the biggest takeaway from the vast body of research that’s been collected? What Harvard scientists found and are now shouting from the rooftops through articles, interviews, and a very viral TED Talk is that perhaps the single most important factor to ensure a long and fulfilling life is human connection. As The Harvard Gazette summed it up:

Close relationships, more than money or fame, are what keep people happy throughout their lives… Those ties protect people from life’s discontents, help to delay mental and physical decline, and are better predictors of long and happy lives than social class, IQ, or even genes.

The study’s lead researcher Robert Waldinger concluded that “it wasn’t their middle-age cholesterol levels that predicted how [the study’s subjects] were going to grow old. It was how satisfied they were in their relationships. The people who were the most satisfied in their relationships at age 50 were the healthiest at age 80.”

These relationships extend beyond our significant other and immediate family to include our friends and the community we create around ourselves. One study from Australia showed that strong social networks may lengthen survival in elderly men and women, and that good friends are even more likely to increase longevity than close family members. While strong friendships may seem like an unsurprising contributor to good health, another study from 2014 revealed that “even social interactions with the more peripheral members of our social networks [i.e. acquaintances] contribute to our well-being.”

Basically, how we interact with others and how they interact with us matters on an even deeper level than we may expect. That friendly hello at the market, the warm look we offer a coworker, the extra bit of affection we express to a friend, and the time we take to laugh with our partner can benefit our minds and bodies in ways that can expand both the quality and quantity of the days of our lives.

In the interest of keeping our lives long and our friendships strong, here are five principles that can help us nurture our relationships. These suggestions come from Dr. Lisa Firestone and are elaborated on in her blog “5 Ways to Maintain Lifelong Friends.”

  1. Be honest – If we want to truly know and be known by someone else, we have to be truthful with them.
  2. Repair misattunements – All relationships experience misunderstandings and tense moments. Talking it through rather than walking away can help us maintain (and even deepen) the relationships that have meaning to us.
  3. Make time and show appreciation – It’s easy to get wrapped up in responsibilities, but we have to make room for the people who bring us joy and make us feel more ourselves.
  4. Alter expectations and resist making assumptions – We should try to enjoy and delight in the individuality and unpredictability of another person rather than trying to make them fit into certain expectations or roles we set for them.
  5. Choose compassion over cynicism – When we know someone well, we will know their flaws as well as their strengths, but becoming critical or projecting onto our friends only makes us suffer. Instead, we should try to extend compassion and understanding and not be inclined to ruminate on the negative.

Giving value to our relationships and making them a priority in our lives are not luxuries we can afford to overlook. In fact, they may be the key to a healthy existence that we truly appreciate and enjoy.

About the Author

Carolyn Joyce Carolyn Joyce joined PsychAlive in 2009, after receiving her M.A. in journalism from the University of Southern California. Her interest in psychology led her to pursue writing in the field of mental health education and awareness. Carolyn's training in multimedia reporting has helped support and expand PsychAlive's efforts to provide free articles, videos, podcasts, and Webinars to the public. She now works as an editor for PsychAlive and a communications specialist at The Glendon Association, the non-profit mental health research organization that produced PsychAlive.

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