Since 1938, the Harvard Study of Adult Development has tracked the entire lives of two cohorts of men. Of the two groups tracked, 268 were Harvard sophomores who finished college during World War II and the second were 456 boys chosen specifically because they were from some of the most disadvantaged families in 1930’s Boston. Year after year, the tracking included the men’s work and home lives as well as their emotional and physical health, and their wives were finally included in the study, just a decade ago.
Around 60 of the original men — most of whom are now in their nineties — are alive, well, and still participating, and research has now begun on more than 2,000 of their children. Over seventy years has seen the participants become factory workers, lawyers, bricklayers, and doctors. Some developed alcoholism and schizophrenia, and one participant, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, went on to become the President of the United States.
The clearest message from the research was that good relationships keep people happier and healthier, and that social connections are extremely good for us. Those who were more connected to family, friends, and community were happier, physically healthier, and lived longer. Loneliness was toxic and those who were more isolated than they wanted to be were less happy, their health and brain functioning declined earlier, and they lived shorter lives.
Quality not quantity
We all know it is possible to be lonely in a crowd or a marriage, and the second lesson revealed that it is the quality of people’s relationships that matter. While it doesn’t take a study to tell us that living in conflict is bad for people, results showed that high conflict marriages were very bad for health and that warm relationships were protective.
Support and stability
Additionally, those in their 80s who were in securely-attached relationships didn’t just protect their bodies, but protected their brains too. Those who felt they could count on the other in times of need had memories that stayed sharper longer. Contrastingly, those who felt they couldn’t count on the other experienced memory decline. While some couples argued a lot — as long as they felt they could count on the other, it didn’t take a toll on their memory. In summary, those who fared the best during the 75-year study were those who had strong relationships with family, friends, and community.
Many will say that the world’s longest study of adult life merely confirms what the wisdom of the ages has always taught us. However, under a constant barrage of messages of things that we are told will make us happy, we humans are fast-forgetters who want a quick fix. For confirmation of this, we need look no further than a recent survey of millennials, who, when asked what their most important life goals were, 80 percent said a major goal was to get rich and for 50 percent, it was to become famous. (Originally published on theantimedia.org)