When I talk about health on my website, a lot of that context has to do with food and nutrition. Superfoods you can add into your routine, herbs with powerful medicinal properties, and other tangible, earthly tools we can grasp in our hands and physically put into our mouths. I know how much emphasis and energy we (especially those of us who have battled chronic illness) can focus on the foods we do (or don’t) consume. I also know that can be difficult sometimes, even anxiety-inducing; like when you first go gluten or dairy free to lower inflammation, and your coworkers throw a pizza party. I have been that person who declined a social invitation just to avoid the stares and questions that come with a diet change and journey to healing. But what if I told you the avoidance of that human connection can do far more harm than the slice of thick-crust pizza?
The Harvard Study of Adult Development began in 1938, and has been tracking the lives of 724 men for over 75 years. The aim was to uncover the mystery of life: what truly makes us happy and healthy? What matters in the long run, and why do some live longer with more vibrant health than others? Unsurprisingly, at the start most men predicted fame and wealth would keep them fulfilled. But such as life, there was a twist, and the results showed a far more authentic picture.
Out of the 724, half (group 1) had an excellent start in life. They came from educated families, and were all sophomores at Harvard University. The second half, group 2, were from Boston’s poorest neighborhoods. They were specifically chosen because of their disadvantaged conditions, often including a lack of running water. Every 2 years, those men were not only sent questionnaires – their blood was drawn, medical records examined, and brains scanned. Eventually, they were even recorded talking with their children and wives about life’s deepest conundrums. Today only 60 of the 724 men are still alive, still participating and well into their 90s. So what was the outcome? What Here’s what they learned.
The clearest message from the 75-year study was that good relationships keep us happier and healthier, period.
There were 3 major lessons learned.
That social connections are the most important factor in our health and well-being, and that loneliness kills. People who are more socially connected to family, friends and community, are happier, physically healthier and live longer (no matter their diet and exercise regimen, which varied greatly in the men). Those who were isolated from others had health declines earlier in mid-life as well as drops in brain functioning/memory.
You can be lonely in a crowd OR in a marriage – so it’s the QUALITY of your relationships that matter. Living in the midst of relationships with conflict is worse for our health than getting divorced and being along for a while. But warm, loving relationships and friendships with mutual respect amidst disagreements were both physically and neuro-protective.
3. Good relationships protect our brains.
Being in a securely attached relationship with another person in your 80s is excellent for brain health and memory. People who really feel they can count on the other person in times of need have memories that stay sharper longer. Those who feel they can’t count on the other person for support experienced earlier memory decline and dementia. (They also note that this doesn’t mean no bickering – it just means you can count on each other when the going gets tough!)
When they looked back at the men’s mid-life data, they found that their cholesterol levels and other classic health markers had absolutely nothing to do with how long they would live. Shockingly, it was the people who reported being most satisfied in their personal relationships at age 50, who were the most vibrant and healthy at age 80.
I’ve posted many times in the past how deeply our emotions effect our physical health. In Chinese Medicine, every emotion is connected to a different organ. Anger can cause inflammation and disease in our liver; worry can destroy our stomach and digestion. But more importantly, positive emotions and human connection truly do heal us – the most powerful of them all being gratitude. Show gratitude for your relationships today. Call a friend or a parent and thank them for something you may not have said out loud before. Write someone a note or make the a gift that shows your appreciation. Whatever it is, work on and hold onto the relationships you have with people you hold close. Humans can be messy and difficult, but we’re all we have. Without each other we will surely deteriorate, but together we can thrive well into old age, laughing at all the memories along the way.
Instead of worrying only about the food on your plate, or spending precious time/energy striving for the “perfect” diet, put some of that into working on a friendship or solving a conflict. Nourish your emotional body instead of just the physical, and know that it will all balance out.
Aging Well: Surprising Guideposts to a Happier Life from the Landmark Harvard Study of Adult Development, George E. Vaillant, 2003