Why Relationships are the Secret to Happiness and a Good Life
Is happiness the key to a good life? What if the key to a good life is really something else? Let’s explore what matters for your long-term happiness and health.
We often hear that happiness is the key to a good life, but what if there's more to it? We’ve all heard about the things that help us to be healthy: consuming unprocessed whole foods, and less sugar, including less alcohol, drinking lots of water, getting exercise, getting enough quality sleep, lowering cholesterol, and minimizing less stress. But, there’s something else that is a key to health, and it’s also a critical contributor to having a good life: cultivating good relationships.
An Amazing Study on the Secrets to Success, Happiness and a Good Life.
Today, we're exploring the profound insights from the book "The Good Life" by Robert Waldinger and Marc Schulz. These researchers conducted one of the longest-running studies on adult development, and their findings have the potential to reshape how we approach our well-being. Harvard sponsored the study which began 85 years ago in 1938.
It followed people, their descendants, and their spouses throughout their lives to measure the types of things that impacted their health and overall well-being. The research team sent participants detailed questionnaires every two years, reviewed health records every five years, and interviewed participants in person every 15 years.
The study started out trying to find the secret to success. What they found was that your success was related to your overall health and happiness and was dependent upon the types of relationships you had.
The people who were the most satisfied in their relationships at age 50 (aka midlife!) were the healthiest and happiest at age 80. Isn’t that amazing? We can choose to pour love and energy into our relationships. And it’s not too late if it hasn’t been a priority for you!
These results are remarkable! I want to highlight each of the major findings and how it applies to you and your life.
Quality Relationships Matter.
Let's kick things off with a revelation that might reshape your perspective on relationships. "The Good Life" emphasizes that the quality of our relationships has a significant impact on our overall well-being. Meaningful connections with family, friends, and partners contribute to a happier and healthier life. Imagine coming home after a tough day to a partner who truly understands you - not just listens, but deeply comprehends.
The warmth of such a connection doesn't just ease daily burdens; it contributes significantly to your overall happiness and well-being. If you don’t have a partner right now, imagine being able to share your deepest thoughts with a friend who truly listens, understands you, and shows up for you.
Emotional Intimacy is important in long-term romantic relationships.
The study emphasizes the importance of emotional intimacy within marriage. Couples who feel emotionally connected and supported tend to report higher levels of marital satisfaction and happiness.
What is emotional intimacy? It’s the connectedness and closeness you feel with someone. It’s the ability to share yourself and trust that your partner will be there for you, and not judge you. It’s the feeling of being seen by someone. It’s also the flip – it’s your partner opening up and sharing their thoughts and feelings with you.
This can be a really hard thing for many people for lots of reasons. I think men get a really bad rap about this. Women want men to be evolved and often, to have deep emotional conversations but how were they supposed to learn how to do this?
Little boys are taught to NOT show their feelings. In fact, they are often shamed or ridiculed for it. Imagine innocently sharing a feeling and being told “Boys don’t cry or stop being a pussy” by a parent, an older sibling or your peers. That would shut down your willingness to be vulnerable or to even acknowledge your feelings.
In couple’s therapy, often our work is getting both partners to open up to one another in a vulnerable manner. That requires each person to recognize and name their feelings and understand the connection between how they feel, what they think and ultimately, how they act.
What’s it like for you? Are you someone who can easily share their feelings? Can your partner? Can your children? What would it take for you to improve your ability to connect in this way to the people who are most important to you. Not everyone deserves to know this part of you – just those that matter most to you and support you.
Quality Over Quantity in Friendships.
Let’s talk next about friendships. The study found that it’s not about the number of friends you have but the quality of those friendships. Instead of cultivating numerous surface relationships, it’s better to focus on going deeper and cultivating truly authentic and meaningful relationships with a smaller group of friends. Having a few close, intimate relationships is more beneficial for longevity than a large social network.
You really just need one or two that show up for you when you need them and give as much as they take. I’ve read research that we have the capacity (time and energy) to nurture deep relationships with a circle of 12 people and that includes close family members.
The study also found that high-conflict relationships had a more detrimental effect on health than the benefits gained from positive connections. What’s that mean: that we need to eliminate toxic relationships from our lives.
Do you know someone toxic? They destroy your happiness. They might be narcissistic or negative, put you down, use you, or suck you dry, leaving you drained of energy and feeling bad about yourself. The bottom line is that these people have no place in your life and if you want to be happy, you need to minimize toxic relationships.
Social Connections Lead to Longer Life.
Loneliness has become an epidemic. About 1 in 4 Americans report feeling lonely. And quite remarkably, Great Britain has appointed a minister of loneliness to address what has become a major public health challenge.
Unfortunately, lonely people are less healthy and less happy. Many of us felt this ourselves or observed this in our children during the pandemic when everyone was isolated from friends and family. The Harvard study found that loneliness was just as negative on long-term health as alcohol and smoking. Their health declines earlier than those who are no lonely.
Simply put, lonely people die earlier than those who are connected to others and have some type of social support system. Additionally, Chronic loneliness increases a person’s odds of death in any given year by 26 percent.
Good Relationships Protect Mental Health.
The research suggests that having a reliable and supportive social network helps protect individuals from mental health issues. That makes sense. If you have a strong support network, you may be less likely to struggle with depression or anxiety and if you are struggling, you will have people that care about you to support you on your journey to better mental health.
Imagine a situation where you can openly share your struggles with a friend who not only listens but helps you navigate through the storm. Naturally, that’s going to be much better for your mental health. That’s why counseling exists – to help people share their deepest struggles and worries with someone who cares and helps them sort through their difficulties.
Another interesting finding is that those with strong relationships tend to experience less cognitive decline and memory loss as they age. Perhaps being engaged in meaningful relationships with good conversations challenges and expands our brains by keeping us active and exposing us to new information and ideas. It might make us use our brains more.
Warm Childhood Relationships Influence Adult Well-being.
Now, let's rewind the tape to where it all begins - childhood. "The Good Life” study found that the quality of relationships in childhood, particularly with parents, has a lasting impact on adult well-being. Imagine a childhood filled with warmth, support, and encouragement. That foundation becomes the bedrock of a more positive and fulfilling adult life.
Unfortunately, not everyone experiences that in childhood or they experience a mixture of warmth and support. For example, for some people, their parents were loving and supportive, but they fell into a group where they were bullied or never felt like they were good enough. I know many people who have experienced this or something similar, and they’ve spent their lives working on improving their self-esteem and feeling like they are good enough.
In fact, many more people than you would imagine struggle with childhood wounds and a core belief that they aren’t enough: not good enough, not smart enough, not thin enough, not attractive enough, not likable enough, not successful enough etc. A big part of our journey through life is learning that we are enough – just because we exist. And that’s why unconditional love is so important in parenting – because you are teaching your children that they are enough.
The positive message is that even if your childhood experiences didn’t put you on the perfect path to the good life, you can improve your happiness and life success by working on your mental health and by investing your time and energy into nurturing great relationships with the people who matter.
What I find motivating in all of this research is that it’s never too late to create rich, meaningful relationships, even if it hasn’t been a priority for you! I remember working with a wonderful woman once who was so focused on climbing the corporate ladder, raising children and then caring for her aging parents that she never seemed to have the time or energy to nurture friendships. One day, she realized she felt so alone and so without purpose. She learned how to play pickleball and joined a pickleball league. She began to make friends and for the first time in her life, she had the desire and the time to focus on herself and on nurturing new friendships. She absolutely blossomed, and her new friendships gave her a new energy and confidence that carried over into the rest of her life. That’s the power of good relationships.
As we wrap up, let's reflect on how the findings from the Harvard study resonate in our own lives. Maybe it's a call to reach out to that friend you've lost touch with or to prioritize emotional intimacy in your relationship. I wonder if you can pick up a pen or if you are driving or working out, make a mental note, of 3 connections that you want to intentionally nurture. Likewise, maybe you need to let go of a toxic relationship.
- Cultivating good relationships is the key to a good life and long-term happiness.
- Meaningful connections with family, friends, and romantic partners contribute significantly to overall happiness and well-being.
- Toxic relationships should be eliminated to protect mental and physical health.
- Loneliness is a major public health challenge, and strong social support networks are crucial for well-being.
- Childhood relationships have a lasting impact on adult health and happiness.
- Taking action to nurture relationships is essential for a better life.
If you want to learn how to nurture your relationships, I invite you to sign up for my free resource on 10 days to better relationships. You can find it on my website: www.heatherengland.com or www.lovefilledlife.com.
"The Good Life" by Robert Waldinger and Marc Schulz.
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