The Dalai Lama put it better than we could ever hope to when he said, “the purpose of our lives is to be happy.” It’s a simple statement, but also a profound one. At the end of the day, we all just want to be happy. Easy, right? And most – if not all of us – are actively looking for it.
But it’s not the pursuit of happiness that’s elusive. It’s finding it. A lot of people look for happiness in their jobs. For others, it’s paying off a credit card, buying a new house, or that new car. And this is where they fail. Like trying to draw water from an empty well, they’re looking for happiness where none exists. It’s a fruitless journey that ironically ends up creating unhappiness in the end.
So what does make us happy? There is no easy answer and it varies from person to person. But a recent study could be shining a light on the underlying catalyst for long-term happiness: relationships.
The study, conducted at Harvard, tracked the lives of 724 men for 78 years, and one of the longest studies of adult life ever done. Investigators surveyed the group every two years about their physical and mental health, their professional lives, their friendships, their marriages — and also subjected them to periodic in-person interviews, medical exams, blood tests and brain scans.
Here’s what they found:
Social connections are really good for us. Loneliness kills.
Right now we’re experiencing a loneliness epidemic on an epic scale. This is largely due to the fact that social media continues to take a more prominent role in our lives. As it does, we become more isolated and lonely. Additional studies have found that using Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, and other similar social media apps that ironically are supposed to connect us to others, actually do the reverse. A little social media is good, but spending hours a day on it will only increase loneliness.
People who are more socially connected to their family, friends, and community tend to be much happier and healthier. They also live longer than people who aren’t as connected. For those who lack strong emotional connections, health begins to decline earlier in midlife along with brain functioning. And sadly, one out of every five Americans claims to be lonely.
It’s not just quantity. It’s quality, too.
Living in conflict with people might be worse than no connection at all. High-conflict marriages, for example, without much affection, turn out to be very bad for our health, perhaps worse than getting divorced. And living in the midst of good, warm relationships is protective. The study found that the key defining factor among healthy men at the age of 50 wasn’t their cholesterol level – it was how satisfied they were in their relationships.
Food for thought.
It turns out that good relationships aren’t just good for our health and soul – they also have an extremely positive impact on our brains. People who feel they can count on others in times of need, for example, tend to have sharper memories that last longer. The reverse is true for those who have fewer social connections.
From brain health to a longer life, there are a lot of benefits to making sure we build long-lasting relationships and more connections to the people around us and the communities where we live. But perhaps the biggest benefit we’ll ever derive from the effort is happiness – the ultimate goal and reward in life. To learn more about relationships and the huge role they play, we highly recommend Robert Waldinger’s Ted Talk: What makes a good life? Lessons from the longest study on happiness. It is fascinating.