Relationships Are Biggest Predictor of Lifelong Health, Happiness

Everyone needs at least one secure relationship for better life outcomes, longevity study shows.

By Linda Hildebrand 

The secret to happiness lies in relationships with fellow human beings, says the man in charge of the world’s oldest known continuous study of adult life and longevity.

So, while it may seem intuitive to think that the isolation of the 2020 covid pandemic dashed the cheer, that wasn’t necessarily the case, said Harvard University psychiatrist Dr. Robert J. Waldinger, director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development.

Waldinger was the opening speaker at The Century Summit 2022 at Stanford University. Stanford Center on Longevity’s annual conference ran December 13-14 at Stanford and online.

“Covid froze our relationships,” Waldinger said.

It delayed some relationships, but it intensified others, he said.

Researchers have found that the strength of relationships may matter as much or more than the number of relationships, Waldinger said.

“A secure connection with at least one person seems to be pretty essential,” he said.

Harvard Study of Adult Development participants were asked in middle age, “Who could you call in the middle of the night if you were sick or scared?” Waldinger said.

Some participants could list a lot of people. Some could list no one, he said.

Those safety nets that people could call in the middle of the night correlated with successful life outcomes.

“We believe that each of us needs at least one securely attached relationship,” Waldinger said.

“It’s really interesting that one question can reveal so much,” said Laura L. Carstensen, the principal investigator for the Stanford Life-span Development Laboratory, who is moderating the summit. She’s a founding director of the Stanford Center on Longevity.

‘Not for lunch’

“Is it too risky to have just one (relationship)?” Carstensen asked. “Are you putting all your eggs in one basket?”

It’s a myth that we can get everything from one relationship, Waldinger said. It’s always better to get different things from different people.

“You know that old joke: ‘For better or for worse but not for lunch,’“ Waldinger said.

Americans faced stresses while they were hunkered down to avoid deadly Covid until the vaccine was developed.

But, Waldinger said, a lot of people are introverts, for whom a few close people are all they need.

Some casual relationships are all but unavoidable — the mail carrier, the barista, the lottery clerk at the corner convenience store.

“Those interactions are affirming. It’s ‘I see you. I recognize you.’ We exchange some pleasantries. Those give us little bits of well-being that give us health benefits,” Waldinger said.

“They give a sense of belonging that’s calming. We believe it has physiological effects,” he said.

Carstensen said those are the people who give people a sense of “relaxation,” a sense of home after returning from a trip.

Staying engaged with people in general matters. People who reach out actively to stay connected are those who thrive, Waldinger said.

“Isolation takes a terrible toll,” he said.

The legendary study

Harvard’s study began with 268 of its sophomores in 1938, during the Depression, to look for clues to how childhood affects health and happiness in middle-age. It compared 268 students from a Boston school for the poor and the delinquent to track how each group adapted throughout their lives.

Both schools then were all white men. Boston, itself, was 97% percent white at the time, Waldinger said.

Women and diverse racial, cultural and social groups were added over the years to achieve more universal results, he said. Among additions were the original groups’ baby boomer children.

Waldinger said he tries to mention corroborating evidence from diverse studies whenever using results from the original group of all white men.

Researchers have collected a treasure trove of data on physical and mental health.

Waldinger’s predecessor, George E. Vaillant, who directed the study for more than three decades, published findings that included that the warmth of relationships, more than intelligence, played a role in participants’ financial success.

Vaillant wrote in his 2012 “Triumphs of Experience” that participants who scored highest on measurements of “warm relationships” earned an average of $141,000 a year more at their peak salaries (usually ages 55 to 60).

Meanwhile, Vaillant found no significant difference in maximum income earned by men with IQs in the 110–115 range and men with IQs higher than 150.

Waldinger reiterated that intelligence, at least within normal ranges, does not prove to be relevant in emotional factors of happiness, either.

Carstensen said Vaillant’s writing focused more on findings about participants’ individual psyches, while Waldinger focuses more on their social worlds.

Waldinger said that’s partly because it was in the 1980s, during Vaillant’s tenure, that data started to indicate that happiness affected physical health.

“At first, we didn’t even believe it. When we looked at people in middle age and followed them to their 80s, we thought we could find predictors of who would be happy and healthy in their 80s,” Waldinger said. “We thought it would be things like their cholesterol.”

What they found instead, he said, was that it was their relationships that mattered.

“The reason we didn’t believe it is that we thought, ‘How could this work?’ As researchers, we wanted to know the mechanisms,” he said.

He refocused his efforts to learn how people’s emotional and interactive lives affect their health.

“If I have something serious happening in my day, and I’m ruminating about it, my heart rate goes up,” Waldinger said.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing, unless a person is in a perpetual fight-or-flight state, for example, he said.

The failure to adapt with better coping mechanisms was more often found in people living in isolation, he said.

“A connection with at least one secure relationship with another individual appears to be crucial,” Waldinger said.

Vaillant was first to demonstrate that coping styles help people adapt to life challenges, Waldinger said. Healthier coping mechanisms, such as facing challenges head-on, served people better than projection, or blaming external factors for bad situations.

As a group, the study found that people adapted their coping styles as they matured and enjoyed better outcomes in life, Waldinger said, “not everyone, not every individual, but as a population, we do” adapt.

The TED talk

Carstensen asked Waldinger for the scoop on the TED talk, “What Makes a Good Life: Lessons from the Longest Study on Happiness,” that he was invited to give around 2015.

She said she had asked Waldinger if TED organizers really make them boil their life’s work into three main lessons.

Waldinger said TED gives you a coach. “He said, ‘It would be good if you have three things.’ I said, ‘We have a million things in our research.’”

He gave the talk in the auditorium of a small elementary school in Boston, thinking his audience was small and would reach a few hundred people on the local TV channels.

“It actually exceeded expectations,” Waldinger said.

TED’s YouTube video has almost 44 million views.

Waldinger tells more of his TED story in a book, “The Good Life,” which he is co-authoring to be published in January, Carstensen said.

Linda Hildebrand is a longtime newspaper editor and consumer-action reporter.





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