The Harvard Study of Adult Development has been conducting a study since 1938. It all began with tracking the health of 268 Harvard sophomores during the Great Depression, and the hopes were that the longitudinal study would show some common denominators of what makes people happy and healthy. Fast forward to today, and it has become one of the longest studies of adult life, leaving researchers with much data that can help us uncover what really contributes to longterm health. The data has covered over 1,000 people, including the children of the original people who participated in the study, including President John F. Kennedy (long before he was in office).
Dr. Robert Waldinger, psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital and professor at Harvard Medical School, currently works on the study now with some people who were working on this research before he was even born. In an interview with author and podcast host Shawn Model, he explains that the most important thing they have discovered that contributes to health is your relationships.
85-Year Study Shows the Number One Most Important Factor for Health and Longevity Is Relationships
"The study, spanning nearly nine decades, is the most detailed study on what creates health, happiness, and fulfillment in the lives of humans. This remarkable study uncovered a plethora of surprising outcomes!" the caption reads in the Instagram reel. Dr. Waldinger says nutrition and exercise are of course important components that everyone should focus on for health, but it's really the relationships that offer so much protection for us in our life.
"This is so unusual that a single study of the same people has lasted 85 years," he said. "But the thing that surprised us was that the people who stayed healthy and lived the longest were the people who had the warmest relationships with other people. And when we found that, we didn't believe it at first. So we thought, how could this be?"
They figured that having good relationships could make you happy, but they wondered how it could "get into your body and predict that you'd be less likely to get coronary artery disease" or even "less likely to get arthritis." How could it possibly be that having healthier relationships could even help you live longer?
"The best hypothesis with some good data is that it's about stress, that good relationships seem to be stress relievers, and so we think what happens is that people who are more isolated, lonely, less connected, that those people stay in a kind of low-level fight or flight mode of chronic stress, higher levels of stress hormones circulating in their bodies, higher levels of inflammation all the time breaking the body's systems slowly but gradually," he explained. "And so that's what we think is one of the main drivers of how relationships can either improve our health or the lack of good relationships can break it down."
Dr. Waldinger said previously in a TED Talk that "the people who were the most satisfied in their relationships at age 50 were the healthiest at age 80." The connections that we foster with each other prove to be much more powerful than money, fame, and material things. Marital satisfaction has a particularly protective effect on people's mental well-being, which would explain why so many studies show that married couples are much less likely to suffer from depression and anxiety than unmarried individuals.
Researchers have had funding from various private foundations and grants, and they have had access to medical records as well as many in-person interviews and questionnaires. They are still collecting data and gathering insights as to what contributes to healthy, happy lives.