Want to Live Happier, Longer, Healthier? Here's how

The Grant Study

Robert Waldinger, the 4th and current director of the Harvard study of adult development tracked the lives of a group of men for 75 years. The goal of the study was to identify the factors that predict healthy aging. The study compared Harvard graduates with a group of disadvantaged youths in Boston. They studied their medical records, which included blood work and brain scans. They also interviewed their children and captured on camera interactions with their spouses. What they learned was profound. Contrary to the belief that wealth, success, or fame will bring us happiness, “Good relationships keep us happier and healthier, period”.

Here are some lessons learned from Waldinger's study:

  1. Social connections are vital to our health and well-being. Conversely, loneliness kills us. Men in the study who reported feeling lonely faced earlier declines in health and brain functioning.
  2. It matters NOT the number of friends on FB or followers on Instagram and Pinterest; what's more important is the quality of our close relationships. High conflict relationships is a good predictor of poor health, whereas safe, secure relationships is a protective factor for our physical, and I would argue, mental and emotional health.
  3. Good relationships keep the brain sharper and for longer. Being in a securely attached relationship at old age is a buffer against memory loss. While our relationships will not be smooth all the time, the ability to be able to count on the other can help us weather through the storms of life.

Here's Waldinger's study on Ted Talk: 

Old news

The thing is, there is nothing new under the sun. In 1988, sociologist James House studied a group of residents in MI and found that people who were social connected lived longer. With subsequent studies, House concluded that social isolation is as dangerous to our health as obesity and smoking.

In 2002, professor James Coyne noted that for men and women with congestive heart failure, a good marriage gives a person the will, “to fight their way back to health”. In fact, the quality of these patients' relationship was a good predictor for which patients will be alive four years later.

In 2006, Louise Hawkley and her colleagues published an article confirming that aging Americans who are lonely are at greater risk for increased blood pressure. And the list goes on.

Then and now

The sad thing is, Waldinger noted that at any given moment, 20% of Americans will report feeling lonely. That's no small number.

And my mind wanders to how we used to live in caves and were a part of a tribe. The men hunted and gathered and the women cleaned, cooked and cared for the kids. Imagine if one of the men woke up one day and said, “Hey buddies, not feelin' it. I think I'm just gonna stay in my cave...” It's either that he has to get up anyway because his buddies won't let him have it, or he and his family go hungry and their genes never made it.

The last I checked, the vast majority of Americans no longer live in communities. We're more mobile, moving half way across the country or across the world, away from our natural supports. We work more hours, sleep less and we are careful with the time that we do have. Who is worthy of our time? Often, that's reduced to our immediate family. And of the (fewer) relationships that we do have, we put more eggs in those baskets. Those relationships matter more to us because they are it.

In comes Emotionally Focused Therapy

Sue Johnson, the co-founder of Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT), argues that we often look to our partners to satisfy the emotional connection that people from generations ago got from a whole village. When we have such high expectations of our adult love relationships, so much is at stake.

In fact, Waldinger's findings would not surprise Johnson. She was the one who pointed to the wealth of research noted above. I have heard her argue for why James Bond would be a hot mess if he were to come into my therapy office because we are NOT meant to be unattached and self-sufficient. We are made for close, secure attachment with our significant other.

Waldinger acknowledged the "What": accounting for the presence of physical pain in men in their 80's, those in a satisfied relationship stayed happy. One of Johnson's friends, neuroscientist Jim Coan, explained the "Why": the perception of pain is curved by being in a supportive, happy relationship.

Going forward

My pledge to you is similar to that of Waldinger's: go seek out a friend and connect offline. Go mend a broken relationship. Be open to new friendships. Make small steps toward expanding your social connections.

If you long to be close and securely attached to your partner, I'm here!


Ada Pang, MS, LMFT is the proud owner of People Bloom Counseling, a Redmond counseling practice in WA. She's a Licensed and Marriage Therapist and she loves helping distressed couples learn to connect in a safe and secure way. When she's not meeting with clients, she loves working on her business and expanding her reach to help more hurting people. And when she's not working, she has been frequenting various farmers' market and feasting on summer fruits.