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The One Thing That Can Make Us Happier and Healthier

15 ways to deepen the connections that matter most.

Key points

  • Eight decades of research indicate specific traits and behaviors linked with increased happiness.
  • Positive romantic and social relationships are the most important ingredients in happiness and longevity.
  • Maintaining the quality of your relationships includes telling people you love them and making time.
Source: MonkeyBusinessImages/Shutterstock

In 1938, researchers at Harvard University embarked on an ambitious long-term study to determine what creates happiness in life.

To date, this project has followed 724 men from various socioeconomic backgrounds—from the original group of 268 Harvard undergrads to inner-city Boston neighborhoods—in one of the world’s longest studies of adult life.

Over the years, the researchers have collected and analyzed a vast array of information from each participant’s health records, as well as in-person interviews, questionnaires, and interviews with family members about their lives and their mental and emotional wellness at two-year intervals. The results indicate that specific traits and behaviors are linked with increased happiness levels across the entire group and over time.

Contrary to what you might think, the most important ingredient in health and happiness is not career achievement, material success, exercise, or diet. The most consistent finding over 85 years of research is that–more than any other factor, by far—positive relationships with family, friends, and community keep us happier and healthier and help us live longer.1

StockSnap from Pixabay
StockSnap from Pixabay

Psychiatrist George Vaillant joined the Harvard study team as a researcher in 1966 and led the study from 1972 until 2004. Trained as a psychoanalyst, Vaillant came to recognize that relationships were the key to healthy aging and the ability of people to live long and satisfying lives.

Researchers also found that those with strong social support experienced less mental deterioration as they aged. Human beings are hard-wired to connect with others, which creates mental and emotional stimulation that activates the parasympathetic division of the automatic nervous system and boosts mood, whereas a sense of social isolation generates loneliness and deflates mood. This suggests the health and wellness value of focusing on enhancing positive relationships and downsizing negative people in your life—by being intentionally selective about your interactions with them or even letting go of the relationship altogether.

While the role of genetics is still significant, it turns out to be less important to longevity than the level of satisfaction with relationships in midlife. Other meaningful protective factors are reasonable physical activity, the absence of alcohol abuse and smoking, having mature mechanisms to cope with life’s ups and downs, and a healthy weight. The more these study participants evidenced, the better their chances for longer, happier lives.

Primary relationship/marital satisfaction has a particularly protective effect on people’s mental health. Related research by the Harvard study’s current director, Robert Waldinger, a psychiatrist, and Zen priest, found that people who had happy marriages in their 80s reported that their moods didn’t suffer, even on days when they had more physical pain. Those with unhappy marriages felt both more emotional and physical pain.2

Steps to Cultivate and Enhance the Quality of Your Relationships

  • Practice “relational fitness.” We tend to think that they will take care of themselves once we establish friendships and intimate relationships. But our social relationships are living systems that evolve and require attention and action to sustain healthy connections over time and changing life circumstances. Relational fitness requires taking an ongoing inventory of our connections with others. This involves evaluating them with an eye toward whether they continue to serve our health and well-being. Which of your relationships have meaning and value to you? Which contribute to the quality of your life, which ones tend to detract from it, and which ones do you wish were better? More specifically, a helpful approach to assessing your relational fitness includes the following areas:
  • Safety and security. Who can you turn to in moments of uncertainty and/or crisis?
  • Learning and growth. Who encourages you to try new things, take healthy risks by going outside your comfort zone, and pursue your life's goals?
  • Emotional closeness and trust. Who can you trust and call on when you are struggling and be honest about your feelings?
  • Identity affirmation and shared experience. Who in your life has shared important experiences with you? Who helps you strengthen your sense of who you are and your priorities?
  • Romantic intimacy. Do you have a healthy amount of romantic connection and intimacy in your life?
  • Help both informational and practical. Who do you turn to when you need guidance or assistance solving a practical problem (e.g., home repair, fixing your WiFi connection)?
  • Fun and relaxation. Who makes you laugh? Who do you call to see a movie or go on a road trip with? Who makes you feel connected and at ease?
  • Smile intentionally and often. A genuine smile is a small yet profound act of kindness and generosity that also elevates mood by triggering the release of the feel-good neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine.
  • Greet people when you encounter them. Say “hello,” “good morning,” and “good afternoon.” Whenever possible, greet people by name, which symbolizes recognition and connection and is among the most understated yet powerfully validating experiences a person can have.
  • Express gratitude/appreciation. Say “thank you.” It’s a way of recognizing others and honoring their efforts.
  • Make some time for conversations. A newly published study suggests that the simple act of reaching out to a friend for conversation—at least once a day, if possible—increases happiness and lowers stress.3
  • Engage in forms of caring touch (whenever appropriate and emotionally safe), such as gently putting a hand on another’s shoulder to communicate support or sharing a heartfelt hug. Caring touch has multiple physiological and emotional benefits for both people. It reduces blood pressure, lowers the stress hormone cortisol, and stimulates the release of oxytocin, the bonding hormone.
  • When you love people, tell them. Whether a spouse/partner, child, parent, or friend—rather than assume they know you love them, communicate it directly. James Taylor hit this nail squarely on the head: “Shower the people you love with love.”
  • Get involved in some form of being of service to others. Volunteering time and energy for a cause close to your heart is an effective way to connect with more people with similar interests and priorities. Volunteering is also another way to boost happiness by providing a sense of purpose. Research demonstrates that this benefit is especially potent among people ages 45 to 80 and older.4

It's never too late to expand and deepen the relationships that matter to you. Being active in connecting and reconnecting with the people in your life to enrich your relationship with them has profound bio-psycho-social-spiritual benefits. Not only can these benefits last a lifetime, but they can also help extend your lifetime. Whether it's a thoughtful text, a DM via social media, an email, a phone call, or in-person contact, all moments of dedicated attention have meaning and value.

Copyright 2023 Dan Mager, MSW.

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[2] Waldinger RJ, Schulz MS. What's love got to do with it? Social functioning, perceived health, and daily happiness in married octogenarians. Psychol Aging. 2010 Jun;25(2):422-31. doi: 10.1037/a0019087. PMID: 20545426; PMCID: PMC2896234.

[3] Hall, J. A., Holmstrom, A. J., Pennington, N., Perrault, E. K., & Totzkay, D. (2023). Quality Conversation Can Increase Daily Well-Being. Communication Research, 0(0).

[4] Association of volunteering with mental well-being: a lifecourse analysis of a national population-based longitudinal study in the UK, BMJ Open 2016;6:e011327. doi: 10.1136/bmjopen-2016-011327

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