Most of us know that our relationships with others are what matters most. We know this from our own personal experience and, just to be sure, we’ve confirmed it through research.
Daniel Gilbert, the “Harvard happiness expert”, has studied the nature of happiness for decades and here is his conclusion: “We are happy when we have family, we are happy when we have friends and almost all the other things we think make us happy are actually just ways of getting more family and friends.”
That’s not to say that other pursuits aren’t profoundly important to our sense of wellbeing. Communing with nature, developing self-expression, or pursuing vocational goals, for example, can be transformative and deeply meaningful.
But those who have studied happiness, life satisfaction and even longevity, have largely concluded that nothing compares to the importance of our relationships.
George Vaillant, director of a 72-year study of the lives of 268 men, boils down his findings to one major discovery. “The only thing that really matters in life are your relationships to other people.”
This is good news for those who are embedded in large extended families or close-knit communities, or not news at all as the benefits may be self-evident. But that’s not the case for everyone. Through no fault of their own, many people did not inherit a strong, vibrant web of connection to be part of. Their networks need to be developed over time in a more deliberate way.
Fortunately, it is not just the depth and breadth of our social network that impacts on health and happiness. The role that we play in our relationships is another dimension that seems noteworthy, particularly as it relates to longevity. According to The Terman Study (part of the Longevity Project), those who felt loved and cared for did not live the longest. Rather, “those who helped their friends and neighbors, advising and caring for others, tended to live to old age.”
So if being connected, particularly with a helpful spirit, is what matters to us most, let’s do what we can to cultivate our friendships and strengthen our family bonds. Let’s lend a hand or a word of support when the opportunity arises, but let others do so as well, so that we can all derive the joy and the healing power of our relationships. It seems that’s what it’s all about.
Linda Anderson Krech, LICSW, is Program Director of the ToDo Institute and has been a frequent contributor to Thirty Thousand Days. She is the author of Little Dreams: A Practical Guide to Spiritual Parenting and has been teaching Japanese Psychology for over 20 years.