As I was gearing up to write the last blog post on the importance of connecting with others as an essential element of healing, an article came through my Facebook feed. The blurb caught my attention. It said that researchers have discovered that happiness is not based on fame or money, contrary to what some people believe, but on something else. Guess what that something else is: good, warm relationships. In this blog post, I’m going to present the highlights from this awesome piece of research.

When I clicked the link to this article about what really makes people happy, I was led to a TED talk given by Harvard Researcher Robert Waldinger. He is one of many researchers who have been studying adult development by tracking the lives of 724 men over the past 75 years. I’ve provided the link to Waldinger’s talk below and strongly encourage you to watch it. It holds to key to understanding what really makes us ultimately happy and healthy.

The study began in 1938 and involved two groups of men. Half of the participants were Harvard College students. The other half were boys from inner-city neighborhoods, some of the toughest, poorest neighborhoods in Boston at that time. Over the years, the researchers have obtained all kinds of data from these research participants. They interviewed them in their homes, asking them questions about their personal and professional lives and their health. They obtained their medical records. They studied their heart rates and other measures of their physiological functioning. They even interviewed their family members. Many of these research participants, the ones who are still alive, are now in their 90’s.

The results of this longitudinal study are unambiguous and very important for us all to keep in mind as we go through our lives. According to Waldinger, “The clearest message…is this: Good relationships keep us happier and healthier, period.” The results of the research study have shown that our emotional health links directly to our physical health. This supports why connecting with others is one of the essential elements of healing from a functional medical problem.

What you do and the choices you make every day can move you inch by inch towards greater health. This piece of research gives us the direction to head in life, especially if you have a functional health problem: constantly toward good, warm relationships. We need securely-attached relationships with people even if we grew up in families that promoted something other than that. It is never too late to work towards having these kinds of relationships; and it’s worth the effort. Our health and happiness depend on it.

Waldinger offers three other lessons the researchers learned from the study:

  • People who are more socially connected to family, friends, to community are happier, they’re physically healthier, and they live longer than people who are less connected. And the experience of loneliness turns out to be toxic.”
  • It’s the quality of your close relationships that matters. It turns out that living in the midst of conflict is really bad for our health. High conflict marriages, for example, without much affection turn out to be very bad for our health, perhaps worse than getting divorced. And living in the midst of good, warm relationships is protective… The people who were most satisfied in their relationships at age 50 were the healthiest at age 80.”
  • Good relationships don’t just protect our bodies. They protect our brains. It turns out that being in a securely attached relationship to another person in your 80’s is protective.” Those good relationships don’t have to be smooth all the time, but as long as they felt they could really count on the other person when the going got tough, that was what made the difference.

One of the important take-aways from this piece of research is the reminder that generating and maintaining these kinds of relationships in your life take constant work. Waldinger jokes that the prescription for life-long happiness and health is “not sexy”.

Solid bonds with people require constant work to create, strengthen, deepen, and maintain. As one of my good friends says, that is just the deal.

Having a functional medical problem, a chronic health problem like Irritable Bowel Syndrome, migraines, or pain means that you need to lean in more towards the people who love and support you. It’s critical that you have people who can and are available to offer you love, support, and help with your care and healing process. And even when you have those people in your life, you need to feel sufficiently safe, calm, and at ease with them. These relationships must be constantly attended to in order to ensure that both you and the other person are addressing any ruptures in the connection that might lead you or the other person to feel otherwise.

Relationships are like gardens. They need to be watered, weeded, and constantly maintained in order to grow and thrive. The reward for the hard work of cultivating a garden are the bounty of delicious vegetables and beautiful, fragrant flowers that you get to enjoy.

Waldinger also reminds us that our minds prefer to invest time, energy, and effort into activities that yield instant results or quick fixes. That is how we get caught up in things that distract us from the good, warm relationships that require time, energy, and effort to build and maintain.

The lessons here are great and, and as Waldinger points out, “as old as the hills.” The reality here is that what really matters most to the human mind, body, and heart is coming home again and again to that good, warm connection that is so natural. Our nervous systems are wired for it!

Watch Robert Waldinger’s TED talk on what generates happiness: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8KkKuTCFvzI