Add up the hours you spend with good friends and family now, think about how many more years you can expect to live, and multiply. You will find that you will spend surprisingly little time with them, especially compared to the trivial things that occupy your life.
What researchers have found is that your lack of attention to those closest and most meaningful to you could shorten your life, and what time you have will be less happy.
For 85 years, researchers with the Harvard Study of Adult Development have tracked what helps us live a complete, meaningful life. In 1938, the original study began by enrolling 724 young men from Boston who were Harvard undergraduates. What they also had in common was they were from disadvantaged and troubled families, Robert Waldinger and Marc Schulz write in their book “The Good Life: Lessons from the World’s Longest Scientific Study of Happiness.”
Over the years, the study has tracked their marriages, children, and grandchildren. More than 1,300 descendants of the 1938 group are now added to the study. Participants are interviewed and asked to fill out questionnaires asking some pretty intimate questions about their lives.
As the study’s directors, Schulz and Waldinger have developed in-depth pictures of the participants’ mental and physical health as they progress through the stories of their lives.
What they found brought them “to a simple and profound conclusion: Good relationships lead to health and happiness. The trick is that those relationships must be nurtured,” they write. They have also concluded that many of us are very poor at nurturing meaningful relationships.
Time spent alone has steadily increased since 2014. One study showed we’ve gone from spending 40 hours alone each week to 48 hours. As we get older, with kids no longer in the house, we spend even more time alone. When we retire, no longer mixing with coworkers, life can take another step toward increased isolation.
“Loneliness has a physical effect on the body. It can render people more sensitive to pain, suppress their immune system, diminish brain function, and disrupt sleep, which in turn can make an already lonely person even more tired and irritable,” Schulz and Waldinger write. “Ongoing loneliness raises a person’s odds of death by 26% in any given year.”
Studies have found that persistently lonely people are less productive, have more mental health issues, and are more prone to drug and alcohol use. The problems plague both the young and old who are lonely.
“Add to this the fact that a tide of loneliness is flooding through modern societies, and we have a serious problem. Recent stats should make us take notice,” they write.
Too many people today are alone even when they are with others. Sitting next to friends or family, rather than engaging in the warmth and rewards of a conversation, they are addictively glued to their electronic devices. Parents nurture this addiction when they hand these mental pacifiers to their kids, as both check out of interacting with one another.
Kids and young adults are the most connected generation in history, but their connections are transitory, shallow, and lack physical warmth. Schulz and Waldinger cite a worldwide study that found 40% of young people between the ages of 16 and 24 “often or very often” suffer loneliness.
You would think the United States would be one of the happier countries in the world, but a 2019 study found “three out of four adults felt moderate to high levels of loneliness.”
These electronic instruments of a solitary existence not only rob us of time with others but also make lives we could have touched with our attention lonelier.
In-person conversations are where empathy and understanding develop. It is where they are nourished over time. It is where a badly needed hug can banish feelings of loneliness.
Waldinger and Schulz write that it is not the number of friends we have but the quality of those friendships that leads to a happier life.
“It never hurts—especially if you’ve been feeling low—to take a minute to reflect on how your relationships are faring and what you wish could be different about them,” they write.
Take stock of your social network, your closest connections, and ask what you are doing to nurture them. Make doing this a habit. Let it motivate you to reach out. It may sometimes be a frustrating effort for the friends you want to get closer to may feel too busy, and you may feel you are intruding. They may need a little education to recognize the value of cultivating their friendships and closest connections. Ask them what is most important in their lives.
Regrets are what you will nourish if you fail to maintain your friendships. “Repeatedly, when the participants in our study reached old age, they would make a point to say that what they treasured most were their relationships,” Schulz and Waldinger write.
“Relationships keep us happier and healthier throughout our life spans,” they say. “We neglect our connections with others at our peril. Investing in our social fitness is possible each day, each week of our lives. Even small investments today in our relationships with others can create long-term ripples of well-being.”
A significant challenge for communities is how to reach people suffering from loneliness. What should we be doing, as a community to address the loneliness of our residents? How many of our alumni live in places where they are lonely? How do we reach them?
In small towns, there are local gathering places where we often run into each other. We see one other at high school sporting events. We can easily gather for an hour or two with the opportunity to nurture healthy relationships – if we make the effort. Co-workers with whom we develop friendships may live a few blocks away rather than miles through metropolitan traffic.
These are selling points for our communities.