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What makes a good life? Is it money? Fame? Purpose? The almost-80-year-old Harvard Study of Adult Development found the answer.
Scientists started tracking the health of 268 Harvard sophomores in 1938 during the Great Depression, looking for clues about how to lead healthy and happy lives. They collected a ton of physical and mental health data. Eventually, they expanded their study to include the men’s wives and children.
Over the years, the researchers studied the participants’ health trajectories and their triumphs and failures in life such as careers and marriage. What story did the data tell in this longitudinal study? The most surprising finding is that the strength of our relationships has a powerful influence on our health. “Taking care of your body is important, but tending to your relationships is a form of self-care too. That, I think, is the revelation,” said Robert Waldinger, director of the study, a psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital and a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.
How do we strengthen our relationships? The first step is to build a foundation based on character strengths such as respect, honesty, and trust. Next, we must be intentional in how we communicate and interact with others.
Good communication results from listening and responding well. Martin Seligman gives the following example in his book Flourish: Your partner shares “I received a promotion and a raise at work!” Your response is something like one the following:
- Active constructive: “That’s great! I’m so proud of you. I know how important that promotion is to you. Please relive the event with me now. Where were you when your manager told you? What did she say? How did you react? We should go out to celebrate.” Nonverbal: maintaining eye contact, displays of positive emotions such as genuine smiling, touching, laughing.
- Passive constructive: “That’s good news. You deserve it.” Nonverbal: little to no active emotional expression.
- Active destructive: “That sounds like a lot of responsibility to take on. Are you going to spend even fewer nights at home now?” Nonverbal: displays of negative emotions such as furrowed brow and frowning.
- Passive destructive: “What’s for dinner?” Nonverbal: little to no eye contact, turning away, leaving the room.
Providing an active constructive response strengthens the relationship via positive emotions and body language. When life flies by at warp speed, it’s challenging to pause, fully listen, and respond in a way that makes the other person feel fully heard, understood, and valued. For the longevity of those involved, we must intentionally tend to the strength of the relationship.
Several science-based happiness strategies help build and strengthen relationships. For example, Three W’s, (aka Three Blessings), guides our brains away from negative thinking to considering what went well. You can try it by doing the following. Every night for a week set aside ten minutes before going to sleep to write down what went well today and why they went well. The three things do not have to be earthshaking in importance. You can apply this to your relationship by asking “what went well with this person today?”
What makes a good life? Intentionally building, strengthening, and enjoying our relationships. For additional strategies and an action plan, download How to Make a Good Life through Strong Relationships.