The Science of Happiness: Why Social Relationships Matter

Building warm connections aid in living healthier lives (Photo: Pexels)

Dr Malini Yugendran

15 February 2023

Relationships are an essential aspect of people’s lives, influencing their happiness and overall well-being. The Harvard Study of Adult Development, the longest study of the same people, has been tracking thousands of lives from adolescence to old age since 1938. This ground-breaking study provides crucial insights into the connection between warm relationships and individuals’ happiness and health. In this article, we will delve deeper into this topic and explore the various types of relationships that are essential to maintaining our happiness and health.

Connecting with one person who has your back is important. (Photo: Pexels)

Relationships and Happiness

According to the Harvard Study of Adult Development, people who have good, warm connections to others are the happiest and healthiest. These individuals experience more positive emotions, and their physical health is better than those who do not have good relationships.

A study reports that people who have good connections with others are less likely to suffer from depression, diabetes, heart disease, and are more likely to recover faster from illnesses.

According to a New Zealand based study by Manjusha Mane, a Clinical Lead & Mindfulness Educator of the Wellness Support Team with Tamaki Health, “In a qualitative study I conducted during the Lockdown with participants of an online Mindfulness Based Programme, social connection was one of the most important themes that emerged. Participants found the social connection between the participants by meeting online improved their emotional wellbeing. Prosocial behaviour is a mitigating factor to improve psychological and physical wellbeing.  ‘Extraversion’ is related to positive emotions and greater life satisfaction.”

Everyone should have at least one person who they can share their emotions with (Photo: Pexels)

Stress and Relationships

According to Dr Robert Waldinger, the director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, good relationships can be powerful stress regulators. People who have good connections to others can calm down their “fight or flight” response when they experience something upsetting during the day. In a Ted Talk of 2022, Dr Waldinger said that having someone to talk to can be incredibly helpful and the body can calm down after speaking to someone.

On the other hand, people who are isolated and lonely do not have this benefit, he noted. Such individuals remain in a chronic state of fight or flight, and their bodies experience chronic stress. According to Loneliness as a specific risk factor for depressive symptoms: cross-sectional and longitudinal analyses chronic stress can lead to chronic levels of inflammation and circulating stress hormones that can wear away happiness and break down different body systems.

Social fitness is as important as health fitness (Photo: Pexels)

Types of Relationships

Dr Waldinger said in his Ted Talk,  “having at least one person in one’s life who has your back, who you could call in the middle of the night if you were sick or scared, is essential for maintaining happiness and health.”

He added that the types of relationships that are crucial for well-being can include friendships, relatives, work colleagues, and even casual contacts. His study revealed that even talking to strangers can have a positive impact.

According to a American Psychology Association study those who talked to strangers on the subway were happier than those who listened to music, read, or stayed on their phones.

Dr Waldinger stressed that not everyone needs a lot of social interaction to be happy and healthy, but it is important to understand what is right for each person. He also emphasised that social skills are learned and can be improved, meaning that one can practice getting better at them and it pays off.

As such, it is important for individuals to prioritise building and maintaining warm relationships to ensure that they have the social support necessary to thrive. This includes taking steps to nurture existing relationships and actively seeking out new ones.

Manjusha Mane, Clinical Lead & Mindfulness Educator, Wellness Support Team with Tamaki Health. (Photo: Supplied)

How to build a social network?

Dr Waldinger explicates that one way to build and maintain relationships is to prioritise social interaction.

Ms Mane said, “I often encourage introverts to find their “tribe”, like- minded people having shared values and outlook towards life. Joining social support groups, doing volunteer work, joining a club where one can explore new hobbies, etc. can be helpful in finding your tribe. This will also help develop a sense of belonging and a add meaning and purpose to one’s life and reduce stress, improve self-confidence and self-worth.”

The Harvard Study of Adult Development highlights the importance of warm relationships in promoting happiness and overall well-being. While the specific types and amounts of social interaction necessary for optimal health may vary between individuals, prioritising relationships and actively seeking out social support can have a profound impact on one’s happiness and longevity.

Dr Malini Yugendran is an Indian Newslink Reporter based in Auckland.

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