The key to a fulfilling life is not how successful you are, how much money you have, or even how healthy, lucky, or physically capable you are. According to recent studies, the most essential part of living a meaningful life has to do with relationships and love— nothing more, nothing less.
As Fast Company reports, since before WWII researchers at Harvard University have been tracking the physical and emotional wellbeing of two populations of men in the Boston area, in what is known as the Grant and Glueck Study. The ongoing study, which now has over 80 years of data, continues to collect data on two cohorts of men: 456 men who grew up in inner-city Boston between 1939 and 2014; and another group of 268 men who graduated from Harvard between 1939 and 1944.
The research is primarily concerned with “what psycho-social variables and biological
processes from earlier in life predict health and well-being in later life (80’s and 90’s), what aspects of
childhood and adult experience predict the quality of intimate relationships in late life, and how
late life marriage is linked with health and well-being.”
According to the study, people with the most fulfilling lives had one thing in common: strong relationships. As Robert Waldinger, director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, told Fast Company: “The clearest message that we get from this 75-year study is this: Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period.”
The Link Between Relationships and Health
Within the scientific community there has long been an understanding of the connection between relationships and health. This is especially true when it comes to mental health. This understanding, after all, is what led our ancestors to live together in nomadic tribes. Communities offer a biological safeguard against predators, lack of food, and other threats.
But robust data from studies like Grant and Glueck demonstrate an even more profound understanding of the link between relationships and wellbeing– one that supersedes mere biological convenience. We need people to thrive. We need love to thrive. And we need strong relationships to thrive, especially as we age. The biggest predictor of lifetime happiness and fulfillment among this group was love– not wealth, health, or status.
Love Is All You Need
The evidence for this take away from the data is two-fold. The study demonstrates that those who feel lonely are more likely to physically decline and die at a younger age. Conversely, those who feel more connected and loved have a more relaxed nervous system and a reduced capacity to feel pain. Those with strong relationships also feel more emotionally safeguarded and less threatened. Strong relationships allow people to be vulnerable, which strengthens the depth of said relationship.
The key to both takeaways is not the number of relationships that matters for health, either– it’s about having quality relationships. It doesn’t matter if you have twenty casual friends if you don’t have one good one. Quality relationships make people feel safe, relaxed, seen, and like they can be vulnerable. This is why it’s better to be single with close friends than to settle for an “ok” relationship at the expense of your best buds.
Strong relationships are also an insulating factor between life’s vicissitudes, making it easier for people to cope with the loss of parent, child, or loved one. Relationships form a sort of support network that insures healing. Overall, while the Grant and Glueck study confirms an idea that is somewhat intuitive, that relationships are an essential part of health. The notion that “love is all you need” is quite elegant in its simplicity, after all. We need strong, durable relationships to give our lives meaning. And that is really all there is to it. 🙂
Harvard is now beginning to collect data on the children of the original participants in this study to gain more insight on links between healthy aging, social neuroscience, marriage, relationships and health.
Read our related article on the Science of Stress Granules.