When I was working in clinical practice, ordering a lipid profile on my patients was as common a procedure as a person’s blood pressure and weight. Having a high level of ‘LDL’, the bad cholesterol or too much triglyceride being known as a risk factor for heart disease, our biggest killer.
While minimising that risk is important, have you ever wondered what difference that makes to your overall level of happiness and health as you age?
Cultivating a good life isn’t just about enjoying a favourable set of genes, achieving fame or fortune or having a normal cholesterol, it’s the strength of your closest relationships.
This isn’t about your thousands of Facebook followers or LinkedIn connections. It’s the relationship with your partner, your best friend and inner circle that matter. Those you know you can call on for support, no matter what. Those who love you and know you for who you are.
How do we know this to be true?
In 1938 the World’s longest-running longitudinal study The Harvard Study of Adult Development set out to answer the question, “what makes for a good life?”
The study followed two groups of 724 young men.
The first group were Harvard Sophomores who all completed their studies during World War Two. The second group were chosen from Boston’s poorest and most disadvantaged families.
Eighty-two years later the bi-annual study is still running.
Those of the original cohort still living, and now in their nineties are still taking part. The study has now also been extended to include their children and their wives.
Robert Waldinger, the 4th Director of the study, shared the key findings of the study in his 2015 TEDx Talk.
1. Social connections keep us happier and healthier
We are living in an era of growing loneliness, and it’s being made worse in this time of the Covid-19 pandemic. One in four Australians admit to feeling lonely on at least one day a week and for another twenty percent this is on three days a week. Loneliness isn’t just a problem of feeling disconnected and isolated from others, it’s a killer, as harmful to us as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, increasing our risk of heart disease, stroke and premature death as well as being associated with higher levels of depression.
Loneliness is different from being alone. You can be lonely at work or in your marriage.
Enjoying a close loving relationship with your partner is protective to your health. It’s good for your physical and mental wellbeing.
2. You can predict how well you will age
It’s not an unreasonable hope that we’ll stay fit and well enough to continue to enjoy a full and fulfilling life as we age. What the data from the study revealed was that the strongest predictor to who would be a happy healthy 80-year old at age fifty, wasn’t their cholesterol level.
It was the degree of satisfaction in their relationships.
Everybody ages. Many of us develop aches and pains and an assortment of age-related conditions. Those lucky enough to have happy close relationships were shown to stay happy even on those days when their physical ailments were more painful. Conversely, those in an unhappy relationship experienced more emotional pain on the days where their physical pain was more intense.
3. Strong relationships help you stay sharp
Having someone you can depend on is what makes the difference. Our cognition starts to show a visible decline even in our mid-fifties. Help! Having a partner who you are close to is useful, not only to remind you of what you’ve forgotten but helps to preserve your memory and cognition.
Staying happy at any age
Our personal connections and friendships change during different phases of our lives. Some will be lifelong friends, others more temporary. As circumstances or our geographical location changes, seeking out new connections means you never run out of playmates at any age.
Beyond work, forming relationships through joining sports groups, special interest groups or volunteering provides the opportunity to broaden your social network while having fun, learning new skills and staying mentally, physically and cognitively active.
Feeling happy and content helps us to live a life well-lived, and the best investment for your health and wellbeing is to cultivate those strong and close relationships.
Are you enjoying the good life?
Dr Jenny Brockis is a medical practitioner and board-certified lifestyle medicine physician, keynote speaker and best-selling author. Her new book Thriving Mind (Wiley) is now available for pre-order.