It’s no great secret that spending time with friends and loved ones can bring us a sense of belonging and contentment, but what does that actually mean for us? Are there benefits that we are only just beginning to comprehend?
A team of Harvard Researchers is conducting an ongoing study that has been active for more than three-quarters of a century. That’s right, through what the current director Robert Waldinger terms as “luck and persistence”, generations of researchers have undertaken to continue the study that began with a cohort of teenagers who are now in their eighties and beyond, and whose children and grandchildren are now participating.
Through regular blood tests, brain scans, body scans, surveys, questionnaires, interviews and observations, these researchers discovered one key component to what makes a happy, healthy life: relationships. Good ones, specifically.
The researchers decided to go back to the data from the participants when they were middle-aged, to see if they could predict who would live longer and report greater happiness. The answer was surprising.
The key predictor for living to well past the average age expectancy was not cholesterol level or blood pressure – it was stable, high quality relationships. Those who were in a happy, supportive, committed relationship in middle age were much more likely to make it to old age, and to be happy about it. The same could be said for those who had close social ties with family and friends, and rarely reported loneliness.
Not only this, but those 80-somethings who were in long-term relationships with a partner they felt they could rely on had better memories and were protected from brain degradation, among other things.
Given that one in five adult Americans report feeling lonely at any given time, and that the UK is the loneliness capital of Europe, this could have a huge impact on public health care. It is important to remember that just having a partner doesn’t equate to happiness, as people can feel lonely in a marriage or a crowd of friends, but it is rather having a partner and network who you feel are supportive and can be relied upon, who make you feel safe, secure and loved.
Another set of research looked into number of interactions with strong ties (family, friends, colleauges) and weak ties (casual acquantainces, cashiers, neighbours you recognise) and their effect upon happiness levels. This study found that a greater number of interactions with strong ties was linked to a greater sense of happiness, as expected. Unexpectedly, this correlation between interactions and happiness was also true of weak ties, but only when someone is new to a community. Therefore, a sense of belonging needs to be established to contribute to happiness, but after that the stronger ties play a bigger role in happiness levels. When new to a community, happiness can be increased by simple interactions such as smiling at people on the street, but once that sense of belonging is established, happiness increases more with deeper, more personal interactions.
So there we have it, loving relationships and strong community networks protect your body, your brain, and create happiness.
What can you do to use this information wisely?
If you’re new to an area:
- Join a community project, a sports team, book club or art society, whatever floats your boat.
- Get out of the house! Don’t spend your down-time streaming TV shows alone, go outside and smile at everyone you see, chat to the cashiers, the dogwalkers and the mums pushing prams – you never know where those conversations may take you.
Whether you’re new or established:
- Start a new hobby that takes you into contact with other people, whether it be knitting or rock-climbing – nothing creates strong ties and close friendships more quickly than having a shared passion.
- Volunteer at an old people‘s home visiting those who need some company – extra happiness comes from charitable acts and someone else gets to feel a little less lonely too.
- Call your sibling, parent or close friend, just to say hi and remind them you love them.
- Set a regular weekly or monthly date to hang out with some friends, ie agree on the first Friday of every month for dinner and a film.
- Instead of sitting on the couch mindlessly watching television with your partner, actively do something together, whether that be gardening, playing scrabble, taking up that new hobby together or just having a simple a walk around the block.
- Increase your bonds at work by starting off with something as simple as buying a coffee for a work colleague, or organise a work social – these are the people who could make great friends for years to come, as well as a professional network.
Loneliness is a complex issue with far-reaching psychological and physiological consequences. If you are really struggling with loneliness and are concerned about your mental or physical wellbeing, you should seek the advice of your health professional.