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Close relationships key to good health and happiness

Close friendships are often credited with helping preserve our sanity but now research suggests they may also prolong our lives.

More than 75 years ago Harvard University began a study to investigate what keeps us happy and healthy as we go through life.

Called the Harvard Study of Adult Development, the project has followed more than 700 men of various economic and social backgrounds since they were teenagers in 1938. Of these “originals”, around 60, now aged in their 90s, are left.

The study, believed to be the longest of its kind in existence, collects data every two years by asking participants and their family members questions about their lives and their mental and emotional wellness. The purpose is to build up a comprehensive picture of many different kinds of health information.

The results found that specific traits and behaviours were linked with increased levels of happiness across the entire group.

The researchers, whose methods included poring through medical records and hundreds of in-person interviews and questionnaires, found a strong correlation between men’s flourishing lives and their relationships with family, friends, and community.

Relationships rule

Rather than money or fame, the findings showed that close relationships are what keep people happy throughout their lives with these ties helping to delay mental and physical decline.

Such relationships have been found to be more reliable predictors of long and happy lives than social class, IQ, or even genes.

Dr Robert Waldinger, who is a director of the study and also a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, says the people who were the most satisfied in their relationships at age 50 were the healthiest at age 80.

“The surprising finding is that our relationships, and how happy we are in our relationships, has a powerful influence on our health. 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.

According to the study, those who lived longer and enjoyed sound health avoided smoking and alcohol in excess. Researchers also found that those with strong social support experienced less mental deterioration as they aged.

Happy group of friends singing and playing music together

The power of personal connection

“Personal connection creates mental and emotional stimulation, which are automatic mood boosters, while isolation is a mood buster,” says Dr Waldinger. This is also an opportunity to focus on positive relationships and let go of negative people in your life, or at least minimise your interactions with them.”

Studies have also shown that people’s level of satisfaction with their relationships at age 50 was a better predictor of physical health than their cholesterol levels were.

The news that marital satisfaction has a protective effect on people’s mental health, comes as no surprise to Dr Waldinger.

What’s love got to do with it?

His 2010 study, What’s Love Got To Do With It?: Social Functioning, Perceived Health, and Daily Happiness in Married Octogenarians, found that people who had happy marriages in their 80s reported that their moods didn’t suffer even on the days when they had more physical pain.

Those who had unhappy marriages felt both more emotional and physical pain.

Those who kept warm relationships got to live longer and happier and the loners often died earlier, he says. “Loneliness kills. It’s as powerful as smoking or alcoholism.”

A third study that Dr Waldinger was a part of, Security of attachment to spouses in late life: Concurrent and prospective links with cognitive and emotional wellbeing, found that women who felt securely attached to their partners were less depressed and more happy in their relationships.

They also had better memory functions than those with frequent marital conflicts.

Being more connected to friends, family, partners and others can clear your head and boost your mood. The relationships we form with other people are vital to our mental and emotional wellbeing.

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