What is the ONE essential ingredient for life-long health and happiness?

This 13 minute TED talk video by Harvard psychiatrist Robert Waldinger gives a fascinating insight into the vital importance of one simple key ingredient to life-long health and happiness. When you hear what it is you might think that is obvious or even common sense, but then for a variety of reasons it has so often been ignored or even downplayed.

Common sense is not always common practice. In fact, asking millenials (people born between the early 19080s to the early 2000s) what their major life goals are, according to Waldinger, gets a response of 80% saying they want to be rich while for 50% it is to be famous. There is the implicit assumption, reinforced by popular media, that this is where lasting happiness is found. But what does the research say is the one consistent factor to happiness throughout life?

What is that one simple key ingredient? Let me keep you guessing! If you want to know then either watch the fascinating and entertaining video or just keep reading!

First of all the study. It was one of the longest and most complete studies of adult life ever conducted. The study followed two cohorts (that is groups) of white men for 75 years, starting in 1938. Those two groups were:

  • 268 Harvard sophomores (2nd year students) as part of the "Grant Study" led by Harvard psychiatrist George Vaillant.
  • 456 12- to 16-year-old boys who grew up in inner-city Boston as part of the "Glueck Study" led by Harvard Law School professor Sheldon Glueck.

The researchers surveyed the men about their lives (including the quality of their marriages, job satisfaction, and social activities) every two years and monitored their physical health (including chest X-rays, blood tests, urine tests, and ECGs) every five years.

They came away with one major finding: Good relationships keep us happier and healthier.

When you reflect on how much research on mental health and well-being has been done over the last few decades (the vast majority of which has been about illness and the negative aspects of human life) it is staggering to think how much this simple factor has been ignored or downplayed. (For more on this see the post Why I Am Working On Becoming A Happier Person).

It reminds me of a joke about a drunk man staggering around under a lamp-post late at night. Another man comes up to him to ask what is the matter. The first man replies he has lost his keys. The second man offers to help. After a while having no success in finding the keys, the second man asks the first where he last saw them. The first man replies he last saw them in the bushes in the distance. This puzzles the second man who asks, "Then why are we looking here under the lamp-post?" To which the first man replies, "Because the light is better over here!"

In other words, billions has been spent over the decades looking at a whole variety of factors in human happiness and (mostly) unhappiness, but this simple finding of the importance of good relationships has often been ignored.

So what is it about good relationships that makes the difference?

1. Close connected relationships are good for us and loneliness is a killer.
The men in both groups of the Harvard study who reported being closer to their family, friends, or community tended to be happier and healthier than their less social counterparts. They also tended to live longer.

By comparison, people who said they were lonelier reported feeling less happy. They also had worse physical and mental health. In fact, loneliness can get in the way of mental functioning, sleep, and well-being, which in turn increases the risk of illness and death. Working as a psychiatrist and talking to a number of people who have been suicidal one of the questions we always ask is what stops the person from ending their life. The invariable response is the thought of the impact on a close relative or friend.

2. It is about the quality and not the quantity of relationships.
In fact living in the midst of conflict is very bad for your health. So as an example, high conflict marriage where there is not much affection are as bad for health as getting divorced. By contract living in the midst of good, warm relationships is protective.

One of the fascinating things the researchers were able to do was having followed these men all the way into their 80s, they were able to look back at them at midlife and see if they could predict who was going to grow into a happy, healthy 80 year old and who wasn't. The result? The people who were most satisfied in their relationships at age 50 were the healthiest at age 80. In addition to that these strong relationships also protected them from some of the physical consequences of growing old. Those 80 year olds in happy relationships with their partners were able to report that when they had more physical pain their mood stayed just as happy. But those who were in unhappy relationships, on the days when they reported more physical pain it was made worse by the emotional pain they were experiencing.

3. Good relationships don't just protect our bodies. They protect our brains as well.
Being socially connected to others isn't just good for our physical health. It also helps stave off mental decline. People who were married without having divorced, separating, or having "serious problems" until age 50 performed better on memory tests later in life than those who weren't.

What is my take on all this? It is that we were made for relationship. In fact going right back to the original Garden, God says about Adam, "It is not good for man to be alone." (Genesis 2:18)

But also it is a reminder to me that strong personal relationships with those who are closest to me can compensate for practically any disappointment or frustration in life. And the ultimate relationship is that with God Himself. (For more on this see 'Discovering Silence and Solitude' and 'Is This The Best News You Have Ever Heard?')

What thoughts and questions does the talk and research findings raise for you? What do you need to do differently in your life as a result?

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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2 thoughts on “What is the ONE essential ingredient for life-long health and happiness?

  1. Interesting – and reminds me of something I read in the UN commissioned World Happiness Report carried out by The Earth Institution that death of a spouse and followed by marriage breakdown is just about the most traumatic experience we can have. I think loneliness is a real problem for us especially here in the west and I think not helped by relying on social networks more than face to face relationships.

    • Good point Chris.
      I think social networks can create the illusion of community, but need to be supplemented by real face-to-face in person time.