And it's not about what you have ...
The Harvard Study of Adult Development began in 1938 with 700 young men, some at Harvard and others from inner-city areas of Boston. It followed them throughout their lives, monitoring their mental, physical, and emotional health. The study continues today with more than a thousand men and women, the children of the original participants.
The current director of the study—the fourth since the research began—is psychiatrist Robert Waldinger, who says that “there are many conclusions from this study, but the most fundamental one, which we see time and time again, is that what matters for keeping us happy and healthy throughout our life is the quality of our relationships.”
Our relationships involve being connected to other people, and consequently, we must inevitably manage conflicts. Let’s look more closely at these two aspects:
Robert Waldinger explains that “we find that the more people have satisfying relationships and are connected to others, the longer their body and mind stay healthy.
“A good quality relationship is one in which you feel safe, in which you can be yourself. Of course, no relationship is ideal, but these are qualities that make people flourish.” We’re not talking about feeling good all the time, because that’s impossible; we all have difficult days, weeks, or even years. However, if we have good relationships, and feel that we have people whom we can count on, we can get through the difficult times more easily and with less emotional stress.
At the other extreme, there is the experience of loneliness, a subjective sentiment of being less connected than we’d like. “Loneliness kills,” Waldinger says. “It’s as powerful as smoking or alcoholism.”
Waldinger acknowledges that it can be difficult not to lose sight of what really matters.
In part, this is because we receive messages from our culture all the time, with advertisements that tell us every day that we will be happier or more loved if we buy some new product or service.
“In the last 30 or 40 years, wealth has been glorified; there are billionaires who are heroes just because they are billionaires. Buying things looks like an easier path to happiness, because relationships are difficult; they change, and are complicated.” Conflicts can really undermine our energy and damage our health. However, if we isolate ourselves from the world and from other people, although we might avoid conflicts from relationships, we will never get the social, affective, health, and economic benefits that come from knowing how to live with other people.
In conclusion, spending time with other people and cultivating relationships in healthy ways, without renouncing our own identity and ideas, requires flexibility and balance, but it will always be a great gift for ourselves and for others.