In the last few years, you’ve likely heard of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, the longest running longitudinal study of wellness. Without question, researchers on the project agree that the happiest participant in the study was a high school history teacher who loved his work, was happily married, and spent significant amount of his time with his kids and grandchildren. 

Started in 1938, researchers began following 268 undergraduates with the purpose of studying what leads to healthy and happy lives. At about the same time a second study was started to look at boys from inner-city neighborhoods of Boston, and how environment and early life experiences affect health and well-being late in life. Over eighty years later these studies are ongoing with just a handful of the original participants still alive. Although the study originally started with only men (Harvard was male only at the time), eventually spouses of the participants were added and all of their children as well.

Robert Waldinger, a Harvard Psychologist and researcher, is the current director of the study. Recently he was interviewed by Sam Harris with the release of his new book called, The Good Life. As the head of the research study now for a number of years, Mr Waldinger shared one particularly important insight:

Good relationships keep us happier.

Those who have strong relationships with family, friends, and community aren’t just happier, they are also physically healthier, and they live longer. The effect of loneliness and isolation are exactly the opposite. 

You can, and should seek to make new friends. I’m so grateful for the relationships I’ve developed later in life. I’ve met some of my closest friends in the last 5-10 years and they have been a true blessing. I am such a different person that I was ten years ago at the beginning of this journey of exploration and reading. I’m so grateful for each of them along the way to give me support and share their lives, their thoughts, and their challenges. I’m grateful for a spouse who has been willing to let me grow and develop and become a much better version of myself (I think we may be up to Nate 4.0 😊).

Waldinger had one piece of advice for everyone: Tending to relationships pays off at every phase of life. Tending to your most important relationships brings the greatest joy.

It’s not the number of friends you have, or the fact that you’re in a committed relationship and may have kids. The important thing is the quality of those relationships. Often we take for granted that those relationships will always be there. But, those close relationships can wither away and grow cold from neglect. Almost everyone will tell you what is most important, yet be distracted and pulled away by the things that don’t contribute to overall happiness. 

The following two thoughts from his interview deeply impacted me and inspired me to write this post:

1. You need quantity of time to get quality time. You cannot build deep meaningful relationships in short bursts of intense focus. It just doesn’t happen. The sad thing is that we’re now even failing at that. We are spending poor “quality time” together. Partial attention detracts from the power of connection.

2. Attention is the most basic form of love. “Our full, undivided attention is the greatest gift we have to give each other. It’s pretty rare to give it.”

Please stop to think about that statement for just a minute. I think we have grown accustomed interacting with distraction. We are now checking our phones at any time or place. But what message are we sending to the person we are actually with? I think we tell them consciously, or subconsciously that there is something or someone more important than them. Distraction by what is on the screen is the ultimate form of avoiding the present. Is that the message you are meaning to send?

I invite you to resolve to do better at giving your undivided attention to the people you love the most. Talk to your spouse, your kids, your parents, and your friends about the need to give full, undivided attention. We can reclaim the power of deep connection and strengthen the relationships that will bring the greatest happiness to our lives.

Check out Robert Waldinger’s TedX talk here.