The Importance & Power of Lifelong Relationships

Apr 5, 2023

Recently, our attention was drawn to a massive research undertaking with this stated objective: “The joint mission of the Harvard Study of Adult Development (HSAD) and the Lifespan Research Foundation (LRF) is to promote and use the findings of adult lifespan research to enable people to live healthier lives filled with meaning, connection, and purpose.”

In a report on the study, The Wall Street Journal observed:

“But what if we could watch entire lives as they unfold through time? What if we could study people from the time that they were teenagers all the way into old age to see what really matters to a person’s health and happiness, and which investments really paid off?

For 85 years (and counting), the Harvard Study of Adult Development has tracked an original group of 724 men and more than 1,300 of their male and female descendants over three generations, asking thousands of questions and taking hundreds of measurements to find out what really keeps people healthy and happy.”

The study, which is ongoing, concluded that “one crucial factor stands out for the consistency and power of its ties to physical health, mental health and longevity. Contrary to what many people might think, it’s not career achievement, or exercise, or a healthy diet. Don’t get us wrong; these things matter. But one thing continuously demonstrates its broad and enduring importance: good relationships.”

Relationships Are Good For Us

Good, fulfilling relationships keep us healthier and happier. So, if you want to make just one decision to ensure your own health and happiness, it should be to cultivate warm, lasting relationships of all kinds.

The Harvard Study of Adult Development began in Boston in 1938 and the sample of people whose lives it tracked were drawn from all walks of life, from factory workers and lawyers to bricklayers and doctors.

The interview process was methodical and exhaustive, and the subjects tracked were not necessarily drawn from stereotypically “good” or well-adjusted families. Individuals from disadvantaged neighbourhoods were included and families that were considered “troubled” were represented, as were the offspring of immigrants. There were also individuals with alcoholism and/or mental health challenges included in the study.

As the findings reported: “Some climbed the social ladder from the bottom all the way to the very top, and some made that journey in the opposite direction.”

Astonishingly, the Harvard Study has managed to maintain an 84% participation rate for 85 years, so it’s as definitive and reliable as any comparable research exercise could possibly be.

The Facts Speak For Themselves

The Harvard Study also discovered some additional insights that, while perhaps obvious to many of us, are well worth reporting:

  • For older people, loneliness is twice as unhealthy as obesity, and chronic loneliness increases a person’s odds of death in any given year by 26%.
  • Even though loneliness is a subjective experience, it’s physically harmful
  • The feeling of loneliness is a kind of alarm ringing inside the body
  • A few adjustments to our most treasured relationships can have a very real effect on how we feel

Take the Time to Connect & Relate

Reports The Wall Street Journal: “We might be sitting on a gold mine of vitality that we are not paying attention to, because it is eclipsed by the shiny allure of smartphones or pushed to the side by work demands.”

The conclusions of this study are not simply anecdotal. They are scientific. The authors of the work – Dr. Waldinger and Dr. Schulz, the director and associate director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development – conclude:

“If we accept the wisdom – and, more recently, the scientific evidence – that our relationships are among our most valuable tools for sustaining health and happiness, then choosing to invest time and energy in them today becomes vitally important. It is an investment that will affect everything about how we live in the future.”



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