After studying the lives of 724 men for 79 years, starting in 1938, and analyzing a mountain-load of data obtained from in-person interviews, questionnaires, medical records, etc., researchers at Harvard University concluded that close relationships make men happy and that social ties shield people from life challenges while improving mental and physical health.
The researchers investigated the participants from the time they were teenagers into old age to determine what keeps men healthy and happy. The men were divided into two classes. The first group was sophomores at Harvard College, while the second was a group of boys from Boston’s poorest neighborhoods.
Year after year researchers asked about their work, lives, and health without knowing how their stories would pan out. It turns out that flourishing in life is a function of close ties with family, friends, and community. It had nothing to do with fame, wealth, social class, IQ, genes, etc.
The fourth director of the study, Robert Waldinger, a psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital and a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, said the study revealed that our relationships impact our health powerfully.
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He also said the study uncovered these lessons about relationships: Social connections are good for us; loneliness really kills.
While calling loneliness toxic, Waldinger said social connections make people happier and physically healthier. It made them live longer too.
On the other hand, he also said: “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. And the sad fact is that more than one in five Americans will report that they’re lonely at any given time.”
As companies become more distributed, allowing employees to work remotely and ensuring that teams stay connected seems important. Collaboration tools can be essential in minimizing isolation.
The quality of our close relationships matters
Instead of focusing on quantity, it’s vital to focus on the quality of our friendships.
Living in conflict affects our health. High-conflict marriages, for instance, affect our health negatively, perhaps more than getting a divorce. And living in warm, wholehearted relationships is protective.
Waldinger said they could tell which of their men was going to grow into a healthy, happy octogenarian by looking back at them in midlife: “When we gathered together everything we knew about them at age 50, it wasn’t their middle-age cholesterol levels that predicted how they 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.”
Tension in the workplace between teammates or managers and subordinates can cause an unhealthy stress level among employees. It’s essential to create an environment that encourages open dialog and playful banter, allowing friendships to emerge.
Good relationships protect our brains, not just our bodies
The study found that being attached to a relationship in your 80s is protective. Such people had sharper memories, while people in relationships where they couldn’t count on the other person experienced gradual memory decline.
Arguments, Waldinger said, didn’t affect the memories. They didn’t matter as long as the octogenarian couples knew they could count on each other when they got tough.