Long term Harvard study reveals the secret to living a longer, healthier and happier life is…
As we immerse ourselves in Mental Health Month while lockdowns, travel bans, border closures and remote working challenge our usual means of interacting, now, more than ever, it’s essential that we find ways to maintain meaningful relationships in our post-COVID world, because we know that connection is one the most profound influences on our wellbeing.
Hardwired for connection
Humans have evolved to be social creatures: our need to connect with others is hardwired in, going back hundreds of thousands of years to when we needed to hang out in groups just to survive – we learnt that we could more effectively fend off predators, hunt and gather food, care for our offspring, as part of a community.
Today, although we live in a hyperconnected world, with 24/7 access to others via email, phone, social media, messenger apps, zoom, we’ve never felt more disconnected. We’re more lonely than ever. In fact, research shows that the social media generation are also the loneliest generation.
This is a major problem because we know that a lack of meaningful connection is a key cause of depression.
Connection is not simply about how many friends we have, whether we’re in a romantic relationship or live with our family – it’s about how meaningful and fulfilling those relationships are, how supported we feel and how we support others.
These days so many of our connections are superficial, we don’t prioritise them or invest the time and energy to cultivate meaningful relationships beyond a quick text, group chat or a comment on their instagram post. Even with our loved ones we’re often distracted and not fully present.
The Key to lifelong health and happiness
Whilst we might not need connection for our physical survival in the same way our ancestors did, research shows that our social relationships are still very much essential to our wellbeing.
An 80-year long Harvard study, one of the longest studies of adult life, found that maintaining meaningful relationships is one of the main determinant of our physical health, our mental health and happiness throughout life. The researchers found that our social ties are actually better predictors of our health and happiness than our genes, our financial and social status, or our IQ.
That’s right: The biggest predictor of happiness and fulfillment overall is, basically, love.
It’s not how much you earn or how many followers you have on facebook. The study found that having someone to rely on helps your nervous system relax, keeps your brain healthier for longer and reduces both emotional and physical pain.
Those who feel lonely are more likely to see their physical health decline earlier and die younger.
While COVID makes it more challenging than ever to maintain connection, it’s vital that we make the time to nurture our relations: we need to view social connection as a form of self-care.
And whilst we might not be able to physically spend time with all of our loved ones, there are many ways we can maintain meaningful connection while apart:
- When possible, try video calls, which enable us to notice non verbal communication.
- A group video catch up with family or friends, remembering to create time for individual or smaller group catch-ups as well.
- Watch a movie, TV show, or concert with a friend or family member. During the show, call or text one another to discuss.
- Practice yoga, exercise or meditation with a friend while streaming a class at the same time.
- Have a virtual dinner with a friend or another couple. Pour some wine and video chat while enjoying a meal together.
And remember to reach out to those at the highest risk. Stay connected with elderly loved ones. Call, send letters, deliver gifts or groceries.
But don’t forget those in your bubble: surprisingly, being locked down with our households can also lead to lost connection. We may be stuck in the grind of daily life, not taking the time to connect with our partner, or perhaps we’ve been on autopilot with our kids and haven’t taken the time to engage with them and have fun with them.
Take a moment to bring to mind a relationship that you’ve let slide and think of a practical step you can take to reconnect:
- A date night with your partner, even if it has to be at home, or simply taking the time to have a meaningful conversation with them
- Setting aside time to do an activity with your kids
- Reaching out to a friend you haven’t spoken with for a while
As always, this all comes back to being mindful.
Our mindfulness practices help us to stay present, engaged and connected with the people around us.
Meditations like gratitude practices can help us cultivate gratitude for those in our life.
A simple one is a Kindfulness Meditation in which we offer compassion, happiness, kindness and friendliness to ourselves and others, which increases our feelings of well-being and happiness.
We can feel more connected and closer to others, even strangers. How important is that right now?
As the founder of The Good Place, Ray Good is on a mission to create a more mindful world and help fight the global mental health crisis.
Recognised as one of the best teachers of mental fitness, high performance and mindfulness, Ray runs ‘Worknote’ (worknote = where workshop meets keynote!) styled sessions, providing simple and effective, science-backed tools targeted toward eliminating burnout and thriving in the current working environment.
This article is part of our Mental Health Month series around building wellbeing, but advice for happiness is needed year-round. If you think your team could benefit from some time with Ray: