How happy are you? You’ve likely asked yourself this at some point and the answer has probably changed based on a variety of factors: how you feel about your job, your financial status, your health, your personal growth, the way you look, and more.
If you were to remove those factors and only answer based on the relationships you have with your family, friends, and/or a significant other, your answer might look different.
That’s because at the crux of human happiness is good, close, healthy, relationships, according to Dr Robert Waldinger, a researcher at the Harvard Study of Adult Development and author of The Good Life.
For 85 years, the Harvard Study of Adult Development has been tracking the lives of more than a thousand people to see what patterns emerge in healthy aging.
When Dr Waldinger became the fourth director of the team in 2005, he noticed something specific about healthier and happier people.
“The people who were the happiest were the people who made sure they stayed in touch with friends, they saw friends, family, as compared to people who may have had perfectly good relationships that are just kind of withered away from neglect,” Dr. Waldinger told The Independents.
Researchers determined that one of the predictors of healthy aging is forming good relationships and being able to maintain those relationships over a lifetime.
“Just like physical fitness is something we have to keep doing to take care of our bodies, social fitness is something that maintains our relationships and keeps our relationships strong,” Dr Waldinger says.
For some, it can be intimidating to add another to-do on their list of maintaining their health. Remembering to floss is hard enough, now there needs to be a conscious effort to work out the socialization part of the brain? Well, not always, Dr. Waldinger says.
He tells The Independents that small things like sending someone a text, email, or calling them are great ways to keep people close, especially when you can’t physically see someone. Although he does recommend not allowing “too much time to go by” before you meet face-to-face.
And lest you think you need to go out and make new friends, Dr. Waldinger stresses that it’s the quality of the relationships you have, not the number.
“There’s no ideal number of friends or connections you should have, that we’re all really different, like, some people are more introverted, some people are more extroverted,” he says. “There’s nothing wrong with being shy and wanting fewer people in your life.”
In fact, having only a few friends is far from a bad thing. Through his research, Dr Waldinger says people only need “one or two really close people” in their lives who they feel comfortable calling when they’re in trouble.
Notably, a huge part of maintaining friendships is how you deal with conflict.
By today’s standards, it’s fairly easy to cut someone out of your life when issues arise. You can block their phone calls or their social media pages from your feed and be done with interacting with them.
The prevalence of cancel culture has encouraged us to ostracize someone when they’ve done something wrong. But unless someone has acted abusively, that’s the wrong approach to handling relationships.
“There’s a temptation to write each other off, especially in these cultural times,” Dr. Waldinger says, acknowledging it’s difficult to avoid bending to social norms.
He implores others to act with more empathy and ask questions like, “Where might this person be coming from?” and “Could we get to a place where we can talk about it?” These, he says, are a baseline for understanding how to fix relationships with other people, especially when they’ve offended you.
While there are obvious outliers to this form of empathy, Dr. Waldinger hopes people can learn to “send up trial balloons” and work with one another.
With all of that in mind, Dr. Waldinger enforces that “no life is happy all the time.” Sure, the subjects in the study who reported being most happy had close and loving relationships, but – like everyone else – their lives were filled with struggles too.
“In this quest for happiness,” he says, “People kind of have this idea that ‘if I just do everything right I can be happy nonstop’… and that’s just not true.”