What Beats Diet and Exercise for Best Health Ever?
You know your name, your shoe size, and I’ll bet you know this, too: If you want to live a healthier, happier life you have to exercise regularly and eat well.
But what else? Think now: Wear your seat belt? Get a poodle? Buy low, sell high?
It’s relationships! And I don’t mean with your doctor. It’s the friends you have, the family you keep, the time spent in nurturing relationships. Some researchers believe it’s even more important than diet and exercise. “What keeps us healthy and happy as we go through life?” asks Harvard Medical School professor and researcher Robert Waldinger at the start of his popular TED talk explaining the results of the Study of Adult Development, the longest-running study of human happiness ever done.
“The clearest message that we get from this 75 year study is this,” Waldinger says. “Good relationships keep us healthier and happier.”
Really? Absolutely, says Waldinger, who is the fourth director of this legendary study, which started in 1938, tracking a total of 724 men from Boston—a mix of Harvard sophomores and poor boys from rough neighborhoods. These kinds of in-depth, longitudinal research projects are “exceedingly rare,” he explains. They usually fall apart in 10 years: Subjects drop out; scientists lose interest; funding dries up.
But the Grant Study, as it’s known, continues on even today, with some 60 of the original men studied still alive and in their 90s. Every two years the Harvard scientists come back to them with questionnaires and live interviews, plus blood draws, evaluations of their medical records, brain scans, and talks with their children, spouses and partners.
Like millennials today, Waldinger says, these men started out believing that fame and wealth and high achievement in the workplace were what they needed to live the good life.
Oh, boy, were they wrong. For men and women, health doesn’t come from wealth. And happiness results from having loved ones at your side, not long work hours at your desk.
Here are the three big lessons professor Waldinger outlines in his talk, which you can listen to on YouTube. There’s also an in-depth book that dives deeper into the findings, called “Triumph of Experience: The Men of the Harvard Grant Study” by Harvard psychologist George E. Vaillant.
CONFLICT IS UNHEALTHY
It’s not just the number of friends you have that’s important, he says. It’s the quality of those relationships that matters.
“High-conflict marriages without much affection turn out to be pretty bad for our health,” he says, whereas having good, warm relationships are actually protective.
When the researchers looked at 50-year-old men, “it wasn’t their middle age cholesterol level that predicted how they were going to grow old. It was how satisfied they were in their relations.” If they had supportive ones going for them at 50, they were most likely to be healthy and happy at 80.
CONNECT TO OTHERS
“People who are more socially connected to family and friends and to community are happier, physically healthier and they live longer than people who are less connected,” he reports.
“Loneliness is toxic,” he goes on.
People who experience their lives as lonely are less healthy, their health and brain function declines earlier, and their lives are shorter than those of people who are not lonely. And the sad fact, Waldinger says, is that 1 in 5 Americans report they are lonely.
SAVE YOUR BRAIN
The third biggest lesson learned from the Grant study is that nurturing relationships don’t just protect our bodies; they affect our brains. If a person feels he can count on his significant other “when the going gets rough,” their memories stay sharper, longer.
Want to grow older, better? Waldinger says it might simply “be a matter of replacing screen time with people time, or doing something new together—long walks or date nights.”
The Blue Zone researchers have also confirmed that in geographic areas where people live exceptionally long and healthy lives, daily socializing makes a world of difference.
So ask yourself: What’s the state of your own relationships? Do you have enough genuine friends and supportive family to add more life to your years and years to your life?
Call a pal now. Go out for a coffee or a beer. Talk, listen, reflect.
What a wonderful way to work out.