Valentine’s Day seems like a good time to talk about relationships. And not just about the obvious stuff, like sending flowers, cooking gourmet, or stringing the perfect words together.
In 1938, the Grant Study, the longest study of human development, began following the lives of Harvard University men. In the 1970’s, it merged with a similar study that had begun in the 1940s but focused on less privileged young men from inner city Boston tenements.
Researchers periodically assessed the physical and emotional well-being of the study’s participants. This helped them determine the impact of social status and upbringing on personal happiness.
Robert Waldinger, a Harvard psychiatrist, took over the study in 2003 and shared his findings in a TED Talk he gave in 2015. So far, it’s gotten 13 million views.
Waldinger’s takeaway was clear: Those who maintain strong relationships, and not just romantic ones, are healthier and happier, regardless of their background or income. Relationships tend to buffer us from the “slings and arrows” of growing old.
On the other hand, brain function and overall health tends to deteriorate faster in those who isolate themselves, particularly by mid-life.
The results of the 75-year-old study indicate that a good life is more than wealth, fame, and career success. Turns out money really can’t buy happiness, though who among us wouldn’t like to try?
As I read Waldinger’s report, I realized that for some people, relationships are easier said than done. This is especially true for those who are relationally challenged, such as the extreme introvert or even the broken hearted whose pain prefers solitude.
Several years ago, I proved this theory when I found myself in the thick of depression. Reaching out to other people and fighting the complete preoccupation with self isn’t easy when you’re sad. But I knew I’d need to force myself to take the first step if I wanted to recover.
So, one day, I peeled myself off the couch and clicked onto our church website to see the list of service opportunities. Trust me, nothing sounded worse.
Still in my sweats, I remember the day I crept in the back door of the church and began stocking the shelves of the food pantry. It was easy. I didn’t have to think or speak to anyone.
Dry goods on the left. Perishables on the right.
As I drove home that day, I realized it wasn’t as bad as I had imagined. I could probably do it again next week. So I did. And little by little the tiny steps I took became a giant leap forward.
Without even trying, I had joined a group and made new friends. And the thing I learned about getting connected by volunteering or joining a club is that most people want to make a friend. I also learned that when it comes to relationships and our happiness, one step can change everything.
We weren’t meant to live alone, so get out there. Take that first step and get connected. According to the research, it’s worth the effort.