Harvard researchers discovered the one thing we all need for happier, healthier lives, and it turns out to be a secret that Judaism has been trying to teach us all along. A happy life is based on strong connections.
In 2003 Harvard psychiatrist Robert Waldinger took over the Grant study that has followed the lives over several decades of Harvard students who were selected for the study in 1938. Waldinger is the fourth researcher to continue the study since it began, (Watch his fascinating TedTalk on the study below). The central question of the study is: what makes us happy in life? This ongoing Grant study, the longest study ever conducted in human development, tracked every aspect of the lives of white, male Harvard students assessing the men’s physical and emotional well-being periodically over many decades.
The happiest and healthiest participants were those who have close, intimate relationships in their lives.
The data point to one, clear conclusion: the happiest and healthiest participants in the study were the ones who had and continue to have close, intimate relationships in their lives.
When Waldinger took over the study he invited the wives of the men who are still living (now in their 80s) to look at the influence of marriage on physical health and emotional well-being. The men who were satisfied in their relationships were happier and healthier, regardless of any other financial or other external factor in their lives. Waldinger emphasizes that the things that the media tells us will make us happy -money, power, career success - won’t end up making us happy. Instead, it’s the effort that we put into forging connections with others in our lives that will be the ultimate predictor of our well-being.
“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 good, close relationships seem to buffer us from some of the slings and arrows of getting old,” Waldinger says.
Stability and consistency in our relationships, as well as quality and intimacy, are crucial for our happiness. Virtual relationships, like the ones we maintain on social media, do not contribute to our well-being. Too many of us mistake these casual relationships as important parts of our lives when they are really distracting us from the crucial connections that truly matter.
Waldinger’s research prompted him to make changes in his own life. In his profession, there is significant pressure for him to keep researching and publishing, but he has realized that his role as a teacher and the connections that he is able to forge as a mentor to his students are more important to him and he has begun investing more time in creating those connections. He has also started reaching out more to friends of his who are ill or struggling, even when it is uncomfortable for him to do so because he knows how meaningful that connection can be for both him and those that he reaches out to.
There are also three myths that can prevent us from focusing on connection in our lives.
Myth 1: Relationships aren’t accomplishments. Many of us take pride in our work and other achievements in our lives, but we don’t feel proud of the connections that we build with others. A great marriage should be considered our biggest accomplishment no matter what else we do in our lives. It requires us to grow and give beyond our comfort zones, and we should be proud of this precious connection that we work so hard to build each day. Quality relationships are incredible achievements.
Myth 2: It’s too late for me. Just because you may not have prioritized connection in your life doesn’t mean that you can’t build new relationships today. All around us there are opportunities for genuine connection and giving. We get what we focus on, and it’s never too late to change our focus.
Myth 3. Relationships require endless time. One of the excuses many of us give for ignoring important connections in our lives is that it requires too much time that we don’t have. But if we train ourselves to really listen to others and be open to having authentic conversations with them, we will find that a strong relationship requires love and attention and consistency more than big chunks of our time.