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Jakarta Post

How do we stay healthy and happy? By maintaining our relationships

  • Reyner Valiant Tumbelaka


Surabaya   /   Fri, July 24, 2020   /   02:57 pm
How do we stay healthy and happy? By maintaining our relationships What keeps people happy and healthy? A landmark Harvard study that tracked the lives of more than 700 men has found an answer: good, close relationships. (Shutterstock/File)

During times of suffering and hardship, cultivating personal health and happiness might be more important than ever before. I don't see people smiling or hear them laughing in the hospital these days, even in the discharge lounge.

What I know is that these days, people are waking up and don't have anyone to talk to, while others take a nap, never to wake again. Patients are dying alone, and lonely.

Before the pandemic arrived, a recent survey on millennials asked them about their top life goals. Over 50 percent mentioned getting rich and famous was a major life goal.

It's not just the millennials, but also people of the baby boomer and other generations. We’re constantly told to lean in, push harder and achieve more. We’e given the impression that money and fame are the things we need to have a good life. We put our time and energy into this infinite loop of chasing happiness.

We forget about the things that we can’t control; we forget what has happened to vast numbers of people in their lives.

But what if we could watch entire lives as they unfold over time? What if we could study people from when they were teenagers and into old age to see what really keeps people happy and healthy?

The Harvard Study of Adult Development, a prospective cohort study, may be the longest study of adult life. The researchers tracked the lives of two groups of men from 1938 onwards.

The study began with the first group of cohorts when they were sophomores at the university, which was then all men. They all graduated during World War II, and most went off to serve in the war. The second group was a control group of boys from Boston’s poorest neighborhoods who were chosen specifically because they were from some of the most troubled and disadvantaged families in 1970s Boston.

Both groups lived through war and global poverty.  

The study tracked the lives of these 724 men, year after year, and beyond mere questionnaires. The researchers interviewed the men in their living rooms, spoke to their children and wives about their deepest concerns.

The study also collected the men's medical records, took blood samples and brain scans, all the while not knowing how their lives were going to turn out. Studies like this are exceedingly rare. 

What are the lessons that have surfaced from the thousands of pages of information that have been gathered on these 724 lives?

Well, they were not about wealth or fame or working harder and harder to build the economy, nor were they about climbing the social ladder. The clearest message that the study received through this study of more than 80 years is that close relationships keep us happy and healthy. Period.

Researchers learned three big lessons about relationships. The first is that social connections are really good for us, and that "loneliness kills".

It turned out that the people who were more socially connected to family, friends and their communities were happier, healthier and lived longer than people who were less well connected. On the other hand, loneliness was toxic. People who were more isolated were less happy, their health declined earlier in middle life, including their brain function, and they lived shorter lives. 

We know that people can feel lonely in a crowd, even in a relationship.

The second big lesson they learned is that it’s not just the number of friends you have, and whether or not you’re in a committed relationship: it's the quality that matters. Living in a relationship full of conflict is really bad for our health, while living in a good, warm relationship leads to longer, happier lives. 

The third big lesson about relationships and their impacts on our health is that "good relationships don’t just protect our bodies, they protect our brains". Being in a secure relationship in your 80s can protect our memory functions. And a good relationship doesn’t mean it's smooth-sailing and never fighting. 

So the message is that good, close relationships are good for our health and wellbeing. This wisdom is as old as the hills. But if it was hard to get and easy to neglect before, it feels harder now on both counts. 

During these hard times, modern medicine is in danger of losing an old-fashioned yet powerful tool for building relationships: the human touch. It is difficult to build a two-way connection between patients and physicians when doctors must wear a suit that prevents patients from even recognizing who's behind the mask.

Despite this, all we need do is start by communicating well with our patients, and ensure they have strong family and community support. Today, a good relationship is not just a basic need that people can afford to neglect, it is a real challenge. After all, a healthy and happy life stems from good relationships.


Orthopedic and trauma surgeon; alumnus, medical faculty of Airlangga University, Surabaya

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.