Make new friends and keep the old: The role of relationships in adult well-being

In May of this year, the U.S. Surgeon General’s office released an advisory titled “Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation.” This 77-page document sounds the alarm on how social isolation is harmful to our overall health and well-being. The advisory notes that one in two Americans now struggle with a sense of loneliness on a regular basis. It boldly states that “lacking social connection is as dangerous as smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day”. Such stark statements lead the optimistic among us to seek some more positive information to move forward with.

In April, I was asked to talk to the Adult Discussion Sunday School class at St. James Lutheran Church about a new book that has been released. That book is The Good Life: Lessons from the World’s Longest Scientific Study of Happiness by Robert Waldinger, MD, and Marc Schulz, Ph.D. They are the director and associate director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development. The study they share in the book and the information they have gleaned from the study offer an antidote to the current loneliness epidemic.

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In 1938 researchers at Harvard College recruited 268 sophomore men; at the time, Harvard was an all-male college to be subjects in their Study of Adult Development. At about the same time, a second study sought out teenage boys who lived in some of Boston’s poorest neighborhoods. Eventually, these two studies were combined into one study intending to focus on learning about adult development over time. In total, there were originally 724 men in the study. Unbelievably, 85 years later, that study is still ongoing. It is still called the Harvard Study of Adult Development. It is now one of the longest studies of adult health and development ever conducted and is now looking at a second generation of adults.

Over the years, the focus of the study has shifted based on the science of the times. For example, early on, study subjects were examined for many physical quantities. Body build and features on the head were thought to predict personality qualities and how successful in life a person would be. This was accepted thought in the early mid-twentieth century. This approach has long been replaced by other methods to collect information about study participants. The study now collects medical information, blood samples, and MRIs, as well as verbal responses to questions.

The Harvard Study of Adult Development is unique not just for its longevity but also for how the study has been conducted regarding the collection of information about participants’ lived experiences. Human memory is a quirky thing. One life event overlays a newer event, and eventually, the original memory is no longer clear or accurate. Asking people to remember details about themselves over many years generally produces very unreliable information. Asking people about themselves at frequent intervals about current life situations captures much more reliable information. The Harvard study collects information from its participants every two years. This has been in the form of both responding to questionnaires and recorded interviews.

In the early 2000s, the wives of the original study participants were also included in the study. More recently, the children of the original study participants have also been added to the study. In other words, a second generation of participants is now included. There are now well over 1000 study participants. The amount of data collected is nothing short of miraculous.

What about the findings of the study? Six factors have been identified by the study that can predict healthy aging. These factors include physical activity, the absence of alcohol abuse and smoking, having healthy skills to cope with life’s challenges, enjoying a healthy weight, and, finally, having a stable marriage. For the men who were recruited from the poor neighborhoods of Boston, education was also found to have a positive effect on aging.

Having a stable marriage is considered the most significant finding of the Harvard study and supports the role of relationships, of all kinds, in the health and well-being of people throughout the life span. It seems that close relationships, more than money or some health habits, result in a healthier, more satisfying life. This does not mean healthy diets and exercise can be ignored; see above; those behaviors are important for sound physical health. However, for a life with a healthy sense of positive well-being, relationships are the key.

Here’s the advice part of this article. Make friends of all kinds, and particularly attend to close relationships or friendships. Rather than just go exercise alone in the gym, find a partner to work out with you. Better still, join an exercise class. Join a club, go to religious services, and go all the time. Reach out to those friends who you have not seen or spoken to for a while. Reconnect with people you were once close with. If there is a formula for finding and building relationships, it would be show up all the time to the same activities again and again. Remember the children’s song, “Make new friends, but keep the old. One is silver and the other gold”. 

If you would like to learn more about the Harvard Study of Adult Development, I suggest you read The Good Life: Lessons from the World’s Longest Scientific Study of Happiness by Robert Waldinger, MD, and Marc Schulz, Ph.D. Robert Waldinger also has a very informative TED talk, “What makes a good life? Lessons from the longest study on happiness” (https://www.ted.com/talks/robert_waldinger_what_makes_a_good_life_lessons_from_the_longest_study_on_happiness?language=en)

Margaret H. Swartz, PsyD, is a licensed psychologist in private practice. She is an active member of the Healthy Adams County Behavioral Health Task Force.

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