How Relationships Impact Happiness

Relationship Impact

The third major finding in the research is how relationships impact our happiness.

The Study

The Harvard study of adult development is the longest study of happiness ever conducted. It started in 1938. It’s been going on for 85 years. Hundreds of people have been interviewed and followed throughout their lives. The number one finding so far is that “positive relationships keep us happier, healthier and help us live longer”. Not only does the Harvard study report this finding but study after study has since confirmed these findings. The more social support you have the happier you are. They also found that having strong relationships significantly contributes to being physically stronger; mentally healthier; and living longer. 

So what type of relationships are we talking about? It’s the kind of relationship that you could call in the middle of the night if you were sick or scared or needed help. Think about that, who would you call?  If you have at least one person that comes to your mind, great! That’s it. That’s the kind of relationship we’re talking about; that is essential to maintaining your happiness.  If no one comes to mind, don’t worry we’ll work on that. And yes we all need to work on our relationships. 

When these Harvard study participants looked back on their lives in their 80s, it wasn’t how much money they made or how successful they were. It was the strength and warmth of the connections to others that made a difference in their happiness. The research indicates that all types of relationships: friends, relatives, coworkers, and even strangers can give us that hit of well-being. And even brief encounters can fuel openness, energy, and authenticity.

How Does This Happen?

It turns out that good relationships are stress regulators.  When something stressful happens, the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) gets activated through fight, flight, or freeze. This helps the body take protective action. And then we are meant to return to equilibrium. If we had a very stressful evening and we get home and have someone to talk to, it reduces cortisol. If we don’t have someone to call or interact with we have increased stress and inflammation. We are hardwired to connect. When we make connections, we produce oxytocin and it helps to decrease our anxiety and increase our concentration and our focus.

  • It turns out that, lack of connection and loneliness can be just as deadly as certain diseases.
  • Research has shown that loneliness can add 30 points to blood pressure.
  • A lonely person is 2 to 3 times more likely to suffer from depression.
  • Loneliness is as lethal as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
  • Social support has as much effect on life expectancy as obesity, high blood pressure, and exercise.

So let’s talk about some tools that you can use to improve your social relationships. Dr Robert Waldinger, one of the authors of the Harvard Study, talks about our social fitness. Think of social fitness like physical fitness. It’s a practice. You don’t get in shape after one workout. It’s great to have one workout but you have to keep up your workouts to keep up your physical fitness. Our social fitness is similar. You don’t have strong relationships after one interaction. We have to put effort into our relationships to build strength. Relationships need to be nurtured. 

Assessing Your Social Fitness

 Check in with yourself and ask yourself these questions:

  1. Am I as connected as I would like to be? Maybe in some areas you feel connected but in some areas you long for more connection. What areas would you like to find more connection?
  2. Is there something missing? Do you want deeper friendships? Do you want a romantic partner? Do you want a friend to go walking with? Maybe you want stronger relationships with your coworkers or your neighbors?
  3. Is there someone you have a relationship with that you would like to see more of or deepen the connection? Maybe you have an old friend you have lost touch with. Or maybe you enjoy spending time with a friend at work and would like to do somethings outside of work?

Take Action

Think about how you answered the 3rd question above. Who came to your mind? Ok without thinking about it…take out your phone and send them a text. The text can say something like this: “I’m just thinking about you and I wanted to connect. I wonder if there might be a time that we could talk on the phone or get together.” Or better yet, call them and them you miss them.

So, thanks for joining me on this journey of how to cultivate more happiness in our lives. We have talked about three different types of research findings: one is the happiness equation, the second one is how our mind works, and the third is the importance of relationships.

If there’s just one thing you do to cultivate your happiness: build your relationships!

Lee LeGrice, Ph.D.

Dr. Lee LeGrice is a psychotherapist with offices in Denver, Colorado, and Fort Worth, Texas. In her practice, she focuses on two main areas: relationships and anxiety. A specialty of hers is helping people create safe, secure, loving relationships. 

Let’s face it, relationships are challenging! Healthy relationships don’t just happen, they take work! She feels passionate about putting attachment theory into practice for herself and her clients. And she wants the same for you.

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