Just over 80 years ago, scientists at Harvard starting asking a pretty basic question: What makes a person live a happy and healthy life?
If we’re honest, we ask ourselves that question all the time. Our doctors tell us they know the answer: Eat healthy. Exercise. Our teachers tell us the secret lies in a good education.
Social media companies want us to believe that happy and healthy lives come from the number of likes we have or how many good reviews we can earn. The entire retail industry in America exists to tell us the solution to this basic question.
Convincing people of the answer is a multi-billion dollar business.
And yet, I imagine if I asked a handful of my friends that question, I’d get a different answer from every single one of them.
Those researchers at Harvard thought the same thing. They determined that the only way to get a solid answer was to follow people around for a lifetime.
In 1938, scientists started tracking the lives of 268 Harvard sophomores as part of a research study called the Harvard Study of Adult Development.
Researchers studied health trajectories but went far beyond just the medical perspective.
To really get at the heart of the question, researchers needed to understand the participants’ whole lives: their careers, their marriages, the places they found success and the realities of their defeats. The study was eventually expanded to include the children of those original 268 and in the 1970s, another group of 456 residents in Boston were included as a control group.
What the researchers discovered took them by surprise.
Money, fame, health — all of these factors were important. Social class, intelligence and genetics all played a role. But from both groups the most prominent finding was that the best predictor of happy and healthy lives was something much more subtle: relationships.
The study has been turned into a TED talk, titled “What Makes a Good Life? Lessons from the Longest Study on Happiness” by Robert Waldinger, the current director of the study. “Loneliness kills,” he said in his talk. “It’s as powerful as smoking or alcoholism.”
That’s a pretty significant finding.
Of all the things we spend our lifetimes pursuing in order to gain happiness, the thing we need the most is the thing we most often neglect: people.
Our relationships and our happiness in those relationships are what help people to age well — and not just relationships with our immediate family but our friends, colleagues and neighbors, too.
When I think about what that looks like practically for our communities, I think about the Keep Beverly Hills Pool Open Committee. Here is a grassroots organization, a group of people committed to creating space for relationships to be fostered in community. It is a small thing but it can be really powerful.
For three consecutive years now, the average life span in the United States has declined. A lot of the data points to the opioid crisis as the main contributor to this phenomena. But the Harvard researchers might be on to something, too.
It hits pretty close to home. When I was a kid, I rode my bike for hours around the neighborhood. It was my lifeline. Today my niece and nephew have bicycles that they never use. When I thought about why, I realized it wasn’t because they would rather play video games or because they don’t like to be outside. It’s because, in our current culture, my sister and brother-in-law have to watch them every second. And in a two-working-parent home, that’s just not always feasible.
We no longer live in a world where everyone knows their neighbors. It’s no longer safe for children to just be outside on their own to play. Our circle of community is getting smaller, sometimes even limited to just a few friends who may not even live in our same neighborhoods. We don’t spend time getting to know each other, listening to each other or learning from each other. That cripples our ability to have meaningful relationships.
Obviously knowing the next-door neighbor isn’t a cure-all for every problem. But it might be a step in a better direction. And who knows? If those Harvard folks are right, it may be a powerful connection to a happier and healthier life.
Cortney Stewart is a 2003 graduate of Lecanto High School. She has bachelor’s degrees in political science and international affairs, a master’s degree in intercultural studies and is currently working on her Ph.D. in international conflict management. She most recently spent two years teaching and training students, teachers and government officials in Baghdad, Iraq. Email her at email@example.com.