The Guideposts senior editor explains why relationships are the key to happiness.
Here’s a short post about a big idea. I just read a magazine article about the Harvard Study of Adult Development, a life-long study of more than 200 Harvard graduates tracking them from birth to death asking every conceivable question to discover what makes them tick.
Many, many answers come from the study (including the unsurprising revelation that Harvard men can be laughably arrogant; one referred to the study as “one more token that I am God’s Elect”), but here’s the important one, delivered by Dr. George Vaillant, the psychiatrist in charge: “The only thing that really matters in life are your relationships to other people.”
That’s right, the only thing. Vaillant, who has spent practically his entire professional life tracking the men of the study (who included President John. F. Kennedy and Ben Bradlee, the editor of the Washington Post during Watergate), found many predictors of happiness in life, none surprising. Education, a stable marriage, not smoking, not abusing alcohol, exercise and keeping healthy weight all tend to increase health and happiness.
But only one factor correlates with good life with near perfect accuracy: strong relationships. Fully 93 percent of men in the study thriving at age 65 had been close to siblings at some point in their lives. Almost none reported being lonely. Interestingly, it didn’t matter where those relationships came from. Men from bad homes could recoup by marrying, developing close friendships or bonding with other relatives. What mattered was reaching out, caring about others as much as you care about yourself.
So here’s a question. If relationships are so obviously important to happiness, why don’t more people work harder at them? Why do so many people focus on other things—on anything—besides relationships? Why are we a nation of strivers and consumers instead of a nation of parents, friends and lovers?
Vaillant answers that too. For all that relationships make us happy, they’re hard. Work, success, money, looks—that’s all stuff we can control, or at least try to. We build them up like bulwarks against aging and loss. They’re straightforward.
Relationships, by contrast, are unpredictable. They require vulnerability. As Atlantic magazine writer Joshua Wolf Shenk puts it, “Gratitude and joy, over time, will yield better health and deeper connections—but in the short term actually put us at risk. That’s because, while negative emotions tend to be insulating, positive emotions expose us to the common elements of rejection and heartbreak.”
That’s it, really. There are relationships and then there’s everything else. Relationships, whether to God or others, are where souls thrive. But they are also where souls hurt and put themselves in danger. So we run from them, cloaking ourselves with whatever other trappings we can put together.
Doesn’t matter if we went to Harvard or never graduated high school. We all live like that. We all struggle not to live like that. Which means we all have inside us the tools to make life full and worth living. Or not.
Jim Hinch is a senior editor at GUIDEPOSTS. Reach him at [email protected].