Relationships as Expected
The title is what drew me to read the article. “Harvard researchers discovered the one thing everyone needs for happier, healthier lives” was the enticing title. The Harvard researcher is Dr. Robert Waldinger. Waldinger is a psychiatrist. Since 2003 he is in charge of the 75-year old Grant Study. The Grant Study is the longest human development study, originating in 1938 when the founder of the study chose a bunch of Harvard people to track throughout their lifetimes.
For decades now these men and their successors have been studied from all aspects of their lives. We are told their physical and emotional characteristics have been monitored. Obviously, there have been many things that researchers have concluded. The article summarizes the most significant finding in a single sentence early in the article. They claim, “Relationships are the key to a happier life.” I am not surprised by this claim, but I am glad it seems to be confirmed in such a clear fashion.
The original Grant Study group was soon supplemented by a similar study of Boston inner city youth. In many ways this group differed remarkably from the Harvard-types of the first group. Socio-economic differences, educational differences and many others made these two unique groups. But they apparently had one thing in common.
Waldinger elaborates this this finding. He says, “The happiest and healthiest participants in both groups were the ones who maintained close, intimate relationships.” I am intrigued by Waldinger’s further observations. He says that “People who are more isolated than they want to be from others find that they are less happy, their health declines earlier in midlife, their brain functioning declines sooner and they live shorter lives than people who are not lonely…” This is pretty simple to understand. We can easily conclude we should have friends and good relationships. We will live longer and be healthier.
Now that I am getting older, I appreciated a further claim of Waldinger. He tells us, “And good, close relationships seem to buffer us from some of the slings and arrows of getting old.” I find this comforting since I have not tried to amass a great deal of wealth or sought fame. I apparently am fairly rich in ways that are likely to make life better and more rewarding. The usual markers of a successful life are not as important as the relationships we have.
The article continues with reassuring information---reassuring for me at least. The author claims that “Quality and intimacy, as well as stability and consistency also matter.” It is easy to see this in a spiritual fashion. I am reminded of the dear words that Jesus spoke to his disciples. In John’s Gospel he tells those disciples they are not to understand themselves as servants or slaves. Rather Jesus says, “I call you friends.” This is even richer because I know the Greek word for “friends” is one of the Greek words for “love.” Friendship is a key way of being in relationship.
Waldinger goes further. He says, “Casual relationships, like the ones forged on social media won’t do; neither will contentious ones like an abusive marriage or an unreliable friend.” Again, this is not surprising; in fact, I find some real solace in his words. A friend or colleague with whom I am in conflict with is not good for my health! Any abusive relationship is unhealthy.
All this supports the kind of thinking I do and the kind of teaching I am still doing with younger students and, occasionally, groups of 80-year olds. For me teaching is fostering relationships. I see Jesus as the model for this. Maybe it is because I teach religion and spirituality rather than chemistry or physics. I actually do not see the content of what I teach as important as the relationships that develop. I think this article confirms for me that I may be offering the students a good way to see how good, happy lives develop.
I think all of us on the spiritual path do well to see that much of the spiritual journey is a journey of relationships. I see my faith and a commitment and walk with the God who creatively continues to love me. And just as surely, my spiritual journey is a journey with other believers and, indeed, unbelievers. In one sense we are all in it together! None of us gets out alive---at least not in this earthly form.
But that does not mean life has to be morbid. We can truly live. We can have joy and our share of happiness. Life can be a journey of grace and, hopefully, some good health and a fair share of happiness. Maybe we cannot have it all. But we can have a big chunk of the good life. The secret is now out.
It is the relationships as expected.