Is your relationship making you sick?
- A recent Harvard study shows the single biggest contributor to longevity and happiness is the quality of your relationships.
- You need good relationships to protect your health from life’s challenges and stressors.
- Ongoing activity and care to your social connections is key to a happier and longer life.
More about the Harvard study
The Harvard Study of Adult Development is an 85-year-long study that has already covered three generations and analysed more than 2,000 people1. Following such a large population for eight decades has helped uncover factors most correlated with health and happiness. Those in the study who reported being closer to their family, friends or community tended to be happier, healthier and to live longer. Simply put, your social skills contribute to your resilience2.
How can relationships impact your health?
Stress can happen all day long. When something upsetting happens, your heart rate increases, and the body goes into fight-or-flight mode to meet these challenges. Without people to help you ride out the storm of life’s stressors, your body will stay in a fight-or-flight mode, causing higher levels of circulating stress hormones and inflammatory markers and will gradually wear away at your body systems. This is believed to be the way relationships protect your health: by helping you manage stress3.
The Power of Social Connection
Social connections can be diverse, covering family, friends, and those in your community. It’s about having someone with whom you can vent, who really sees you. Dr Waldinger and Dr Schulz, both directors of the study, have named the process of assessing and treating the health of our relationships, ‘social fitness’1. Social fitness is just as important as physical fitness and needs ongoing care and activity. It might be reaching out to an old friend you have lost touch with, talking to your neighbour, or joining a community group with like-minded people. All social connections can have impact.
Are your relationships healthy? Key signs to look out for
As humans, we are social creatures and need other humans to interact with to help us thrive. Choose quality over quantity in your relationships. Be honest with yourself about where you are devoting your time and make sure you focus on the connections that add value and help you flourish.
Seven types of support have been identified to ascertain what you are getting from your existing connections and whether there are gaps to fill. These seven types1 of support are listed below.
- Safety and security
- Learning and growth
- Emotional closeness and confiding
- Identity affirmation and shared experience
- Romantic intimacy
- Help (both informational and practical)
- Fun and relaxation
You may feel that not all seven types of support are important to you; this is ok. Consider if you’re getting enough support in the areas that are important to you. For example, you may have connections that provide learning and growth, but none that offer emotional closeness or confiding.
There is always hope.
If you’re concerned that you lack quality relationships, it’s never too late to turn things around4. Participating in activities that you enjoy is a wonderful way to broaden your social network. This can include volunteer work, hobbies, and sport. If you have already established healthy relationships, remember that they will not take care of themselves. Our social life is a living system and needs ongoing activity to keep them from fizzling out.
This study highlights the importance of nurturing your relationships and shows that they require ongoing attention and love. Maybe it’s time to reach out to that friend you’ve lost touch with, start volunteering, or join that hip-hop dance class. It’s never too late to turn your social connections around to live a happier, healthier, and longer life.
- Contributors, Marc Schulz, Robert Waldinger. (2023, February 10). An 85-year Harvard study found the No. 1 thing that makes us happy in life: It helps us “live longer.” CNBC. https://www.cnbc.com/2023/02/10/85-year-harvard-study-found-the-secret-to-a-long-happy-and-successful-life.html#:~:text=Contrary%20to%20what%20you%20might
- Mineo, L. (2017, April 11). Good genes are nice, but joy is better. Harvard Gazette; Harvard Gazette. https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2017/04/over-nearly-80-years-harvard-study-has-been-showing-how-to-live-a-healthy-and-happy-life/
- Author Talks: Robert Waldinger on “The Good Life” | McKinsey. (n.d.). Www.mckinsey.com. https://www.mckinsey.com/featured-insights/mckinsey-on-books/author-talks-the-worlds-longest-study-of-adult-development-finds-the-key-to-happy-living
- Lessons From the Longest Study on Happiness. (n.d.). Medscape. Retrieved September 6, 2023, from https://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/994286