Strong Relationships Equal Health, Happiness

12 February, 2018

From VOA Learning English, this is the Health & Lifestyle Report.

What will most help you lead a long happy and healthy life? Is it making lots of money? Is it a great job that you enjoy? Perhaps it's fame.

If you ask a young person, many are likely to give you one of those answers. Or possibly all three.

Some cultures put more importance on work and money than others. Americans can be obsessed with their jobs and making money. They might feel the need to make lots of money for education, medical care, homes and cars.

But it's not just about the money. For many Americans, self-worth is linked to our professional success or failure. Many of us spend most of our lives working – sacrificing other activities.

Imagine if we could visit our older selves and ask -- "What would you have done differently to be truly happy?"

But we can't do that.

We could learn about what makes people happy, and what does not, by studying people over the course of their lives.

A global happiness report named Norway as the happiest country in the world in 2017.
A global happiness report named Norway as the happiest country in the world in 2017.

For almost 80 years, Harvard Medical School researchers have been doing just that.

The Harvard Study of Adult Development is one of the most comprehensive longitudinal studies in history.

Since 1938, it has followed the lives of a group of men from their teen years to old age. Later, the researchers began to follow their wives and children, as well.

The study finds that wealth, social position and an important job title do not necessarily lead to health and happiness.

Robert Waldinger is the current director of the study. He is a psychiatrist and professor at Harvard Medical School.

Waldinger shared some of the findings with a Harvard Gazette reporter. He said, "The surprising finding is that our relationships and how happy we are in our relationships has a powerful influence on our health."

He added, "taking care of your body is important, but tending to your relationships is a form of self-care too.

In 2015, he discussed the study in a TED Talk called, "What makes a good life? Lessons from the longest study on happiness." The video of the talk has been viewed more than 19.5 million times. In the talk, Waldinger says, "Good relationships don't just protect our bodies; they protect our brains."

He says close relationships are what keep people happy throughout their lives -- not money or fame. These close relationships protect people from the difficult times that come with growing older. They protect against physical and mental decline.

The study suggests that strong relationships have a better chance of making a long, happy life than social class, intelligence or even genetics.

And, it is not just romantic relationships.

Waldinger says the relationships we make and care for throughout the years with friends, family members and co-workers are just as important.

The professor adds that strong, close relationships can experience difficult periods. They're not perfect. But, he says dependability in a relationship is most important. He says people need friends they can turn to when life gets hard.

In the TED Talk, Waldinger explains how the researchers collect information for the study.

Researchers send a list of questions to the participants. They interview them in their homes, examine their medical records, take blood for testing and take brain images. They talk with wives and children of the participants. The researchers also video tape the participants talking with their wives.

The study has mirrored popular schools of thought

Clark Heath, the first director of the study, led it from 1938 to 1954. The study at that time included 268 physically and mentally healthy Harvard college students.

At the time, common scientific thought was that physical strength, a high social position and a happy childhood were the strongest predictors of a healthy life.

Researchers at the time also thought genetic-based elements, like intelligence, played a main part in predicting happiness or unhappiness. So, early on, the research did not include examination of participants' relationships.

Then in 1966, a psychiatrist and professor at Harvard Medical School joined the research team. George E. Vaillant changed the direction of the study.

He added a second group of participants -- more than 400 teenagers from some of Boston's poorest neighborhoods. He also expanded the study to include wives and children of the participants.

Vaillant placed a greater importance on investigating the relationships of those in the study.

He wrote that when "the study began, nobody cared about empathy or attachment. But the key to healthy aging is relationships, relationships, relationships."

He followed the successes and failures of the participants in their relationships, family responsibilities and careers. He followed their recoveries as well.

He led the study for more than forty years and then wrote a book about the findings. In Triumphs of Experience: The Men of the Harvard Grant Study, he writes: "The seventy-five years and twenty million dollars expended on the Grant Study points to a straightforward conclusion: Happiness is love."

Current director Robert Waldinger, ended his Ted Talk with this advice from American writer Mark Twain. So, we will too.

"There isn't time -- so brief is life -- for bickerings, apologies, heartburnings, callings to account. There is only time for loving -- & but an instant, so to speak, for that."

And that's the Health & Lifestyle report.

I'm Anna Matteo.

Feel free to share your thoughts on this topic in the Comments section.

Anna Matteo wrote this story for VOA Learning English. Caty Weaver was the editor.


Words in This Story

comprehensive adj. including many, most, or all things

longitudinal adj. done by observing or examining a group of people or things over time to study how one or two particular things about them change

participant n. a person who is involved in an activity or event

tend v. to give your attention to and take care of (something or someone)

interview v. to question or talk with (someone) in order to get information or learn about that person

decline n. the process of becoming worse in condition or quality

genetic adj. of, relating to, or involving genes

romantic adj. of, relating to, or involving love between two people

psychiatrist n. a doctor who treats mental or emotional disorders : a doctor of psychiatry

empathy n. the feeling that you understand and share another person's experiences and emotions

bicker v. to argue in a way that is annoying about things that are not important

instant n. a very short period of time