The quality of your relationships is the biggest predictor of your long-term health
In Harvard’s 84-year-long Study for Adult Development – the longest longitudinal study of the same people – there were some expected findings and some unexpected findings. “It was dramatically clear that the people who did not abuse alcohol, did not smoke, got regular exercise, and had regular access to health care were the people who stayed healthy and lived the longest,” explains Dr. Robert Waldinger, who now directs the study, of what was expected. “The unexpected news was that the quality of people’s relationships – their social lives – predicted how healthy they would remain as they grew older and how long they would live.”
“The unexpected news was that the quality of people’s relationships – their social lives – predicted how healthy they would remain as they grew older and how long they would live.”
As the subjects turned 80, one of the most revealing findings showed that it wasn’t their age 50 blood pressure or cholesterol levels that predicted who would still be alive and healthy, it was their satisfaction in their marital relationships. A whole range of studies has now confirmed these findings, but at first, “we thought, how could that really be?” Dr. Waldinger remembers.
And it’s not just our deep connections that contribute to our health. Casual relationships with your neighbors or local dry cleaner “turn out to be really helpful to us,” says Dr. Waldinger. “You get little hits of positive feelings when you have a nice exchange with the person making your coffee or with the postal delivery person.”
Defining the quality of your relationships is subjective
The two dimensions that define the quality of a relationship are the breadth of your connections (how many people you see in a week) and the warmth. When digging into how secure one might feel in their connections, the researchers asked subjects to list all the people they could call in the middle of the night if they were sick or scared. Some participants couldn’t list anybody, and some participants could list quite a few. “That reflects what we call security of attachment, feeling like somebody in the world has your back, somebody in the world would be there if you really needed help,” explains Dr. Waldinger.
The study’s findings show that “people who were lonelier in general lived shorter lives and they [not only] had earlier physical decline, but cognitive decline.” Loneliness is the experience of not being as connected to others as you want to be. It’s different for everyone. “You could be lonely in a marriage. You can be lonely with 10,000 Facebook friends. So loneliness is that subjective experience akin to secure attachment,” says Dr. Waldinger.
“We think that it is about the stress-relieving, emotion-regulating properties of relationships – that’s the active ingredient in calming the body and bringing the body back to equilibrium after it’s been challenged, after we’re upset.”
You don’t have to be married or even in an intimate partnership, and you don’t have to be an extrovert to have these warm connections. “We think that it is about the stress-relieving, emotion-regulating properties of relationships – that’s the active ingredient in calming the body and bringing the body back to equilibrium after it’s been challenged, after we’re upset,” says Dr. Waldinger. “It’s really about finding a way for your social environment to suit your temperamental needs.”
We’re still learning about the impacts of digital relationships – but it’s not all bad
Emotion is contagious, and we know that some communication of emotion can’t happen in the same way virtually as it does in person. “We don’t know yet what gets filtered out and what’s irreplaceable online,” says Dr. Waldinger, noting the ongoing research in this area. “We do know that there are some ways that online connection can really help people feel less lonely.” What he calls active internet use, like reaching out and connecting with childhood friends “can be really enlivening.” Whereas passive internet use, like scrolling through curated feeds on Instagram, “leads to more depression, more of a sense of missing out, lower self-esteem, particularly with teenagers.”
The differences between men and women are rooted in social structure
As the study participants reached 80, the researchers asked what they regretted the most looking back on their lives. Coming from a more traditional generation, many of the men said they regretted spending so much time at work rather than with the people they cared about. The women said that they wished they had spent less time worrying about what other people thought. There is a fantasy that “if we just do the right stuff, we’ll get to a happy place and we’ll stay there,” says Dr. Waldinger. “And that’s just not the reality of the lives that we studied.” This research shows how we move in and out of happiness all day and at different points in our lives.
“There is a fantasy that ‘if we just do the right stuff, we’ll get to a happy place and we’ll stay there.’ And that’s just not the reality of the lives that we studied.”
Another point of comparison for married men and women is the benefit in longevity, which for men increases seven to 12 years when married, and for women five to seven years. “We’ve always known that marriage was a better deal for men than for women,” explains Dr. Waldinger. One of the aspects they consider is that women are generally better connected than men. “Women may have had less of a boost to get from marriage because they were also getting boosts in longevity from other connections that they were more likely to have than their husbands.”