“The greatest healing therapy is friendship and love.” – Hubert Humphrey
This month, we chose Love and Health as our theme. That love would have a significant bearing on health seems obvious. We are certainly enlivened and strengthened by spending time with people we love and enjoy. But we wanted to examine love more deeply, both to appreciate its importance and to look for ways we might cultivate love in ourselves and build even better, more loving relationships.
The importance of love has been demonstrated in the ongoing now 80-year-old Harvard Study of Adult Development, which seeks to understand what makes for a happy and healthy life.
Recently popularized in a TED talk called “The Good Life” by project director Robert Waldinger, the study combined two very different cohorts: 268 Harvard sophomores (future President John F. Kennedy was one of them) and 456 twelve-to-sixteen-year-old boys from some of Boston’s poorest and most troubled families. The boys and their families were interviewed and have been tracked ever since. Sixty of the original 724, are still alive and participating in the study, which now includes their wives and the next generation, their children and their families.
Thus far, the clearest of the study’s findings is that long-term, strong relationships are what keep us happy and healthy. The researchers have also identified three key points:
- Loneliness is a killer. Not only are lonely people less happy, their physical and cognitive health begins to decline earlier and they live shorter lives. Yet one out of five Americans reports feeling lonely, and loneliness is considered an epidemic.
- The quality of our relationships matters. Warm, caring relationships buffer adversities—even chronic pain seems more manageable and doesn’t affect mood as much. Toxic relationships, on the other hand, make both health and mood worse, including magnifying any aches and pains we may feel.
- Having one of more people we can depend on in times of need has a protective effect on our brains. Even couples who bicker constantly seem to help each other stay mentally fit if they show up for each other when they’re really needed.
So caring, reliable relationships are key to both our happiness and health, and they’re more difficult than ever to cultivate in a culture where work and other commitments consume much of lives and the remainder is often spent in isolated activities like watching TV or sitting at a computer screen.
To combat isolation, it’s important to be proactive—to initiate and make time to be fully present for relationships. A friend of ours noticed that he and his wife and two teen-aged children were communicating primarily through emails. This led him to initiate family mealtimes without technological distractions.
Authentic relationships and love aren’t all unicorns and rainbows, which is why many people avoid them. They can be messy and require soul-searching and growth. In the weeks ahead, we will be looking at skillful ways to build healthy relationships.