Good Relationships Keep Us Healthy & Happy! Good genes are nice, but joy is better
Harvard study, almost 80 years old, has proved that embracing community helps us live longer, and be happier
When scientists began tracking the health of 268 Harvard sophomores in 1938 during the Great Depression, they hoped the longitudinal study would reveal clues to leading healthy and happy lives.
They got more than they wanted.
“Loneliness kills. It’s as powerful as smoking or alcoholism.”
— Robert Waldinger
After following the surviving Crimson men for nearly 80 years as part of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, one of the world’s longest studies of adult life, researchers have collected a cornucopia of data on their physical and mental health.
Of the original Harvard cohort recruited as part of the Grant Study, only 19 are still alive, all in their mid-90s. Among the original recruits were eventual President John F. Kennedy and longtime Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee. (Women weren’t in the original study because the College was still all male.)
In addition, scientists eventually expanded their research to include the men’s offspring, who now number 1,300 and are in their 50s and 60s, to find out how early-life experiences affect health and aging over time. Some participants went on to become successful businessmen, doctors, lawyers, and others ended up as schizophrenics or alcoholics, but not on inevitable tracks.
During the intervening decades, the control groups have expanded. In the 1970s, 456 Boston inner-city residents were enlisted as part of the Glueck Study, and 40 of them are still alive. More than a decade ago, researchers began including wives in the Grant and Glueck studies.
Over the years, researchers have studied the participants’ health trajectories and their broader lives, including their triumphs and failures in careers and marriage, and the finding have produced startling lessons, and not only for the researchers.
“The surprising finding is that our relationships and how happy we are in our relationships has a powerful influence on our health,” said Robert Waldinger, director of the study, a psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital and a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. “Taking care of your body is important, but tending to your relationships is a form of self-care too. That, I think, is the revelation.”
Psychiatrist George Vaillant, who joined the team as a researcher in 1966, led the study from 1972 until 2004. Trained as a psychoanalyst, Vaillant emphasized the role of relationships, and came to recognize the crucial role they played in people living long and pleasant lives.
“When the study began, nobody cared about empathy or attachment. But the key to healthy aging is relationships, relationships, relationships.”
— George Vaillant
In a book called “Aging Well,” by Vaillant wrote that six factors predicted healthy aging for the Harvard men: physical activity, absence of alcohol abuse and smoking, having mature mechanisms to cope with life’s ups and downs, and enjoying both a healthy weight and a stable marriage. For the inner-city men, education was an additional factor. “The more education the inner city men obtained,” wrote Vaillant, “the more likely they were to stop smoking, eat sensibly, and use alcohol in moderation.”
Vaillant’s research highlighted the role of these protective factors in healthy aging. The more factors the subjects had in place, the better the odds they had for longer, happier lives.
“When the study began, nobody cared about empathy or attachment,” said Vaillant. “But the key to healthy aging is relationships, relationships, relationships.”
The study showed that the role of genetics and long-lived ancestors proved less important to longevity than the level of satisfaction with relationships in midlife, now recognized as a good predictor of healthy aging. The research also debunked the idea that people’s personalities “set like plaster” by age 30 and cannot be changed.
“Those who were clearly train wrecks when they were in their 20s or 25s turned out to be wonderful octogenarians,” he said. “On the other hand, alcoholism and major depression could take people who started life as stars and leave them at the end of their lives as train wrecks.”