When you think of looking after your mind and body, what do you think of? Perhaps it is getting your fruit and veg five a day, cutting down on alcohol, watching your cholesterol, or getting enough exercise. But do you give a thought to investing in the quality of your relationships? Probably not, right? However, large-scale longitudinal research tells us of the primacy of our social connections for our mental and physical health.
The Harvard Study of Adult Development has been going for nearly 80 years. Researchers were interested in the key ingredients to a happy, healthy life and successful aging. The large-scale study originally focused on two groups of men (when the study began, Harvard didn’t accept women!): Harvard students and a comparison group of inner-city Bostonians and followed them from 1938 over their lifetime. The study is currently in its second generation studying the children of the original participants. Researchers used a whole host of methods: they interviewed participants, took blood samples, used neuro-imaging technology to track and measure multiple aspects of health. The key finding was that the quality of relationships was central in predicting mental and physical health in later life. The people who were most satisfied in their relationships at 50 were healthiest at 80, with the level of relationship satisfaction being a better predictor of physical health than cholesterol levels.
Of course, it doesn’t seem surprising when you think about it. We are social animals. Although we like to think of ourselves as autonomous individuals, we are embedded in matrices of relationships with our partners, friends, children, family, and community. However this is not what the research team at Harvard were expecting when the research first began in 1938; in fact, it was furthest from their minds. The researchers hypothesized that things like the physical constitution, intellectual ability, and personality traits determined adult development. The fact that quality relationships trumped all of these factors was quite a surprise!
It is the quality and depth of relationships that are critical: having someone that you feel you can turn to, who will be there when life throws up its challenges. That might be a partner, relatives, friends, someone that you can be your true self with, that you can rely on. It is about knowing that you have someone on your side; you don’t need a huge circle of friends, you don’t need to have the perfect relationship, you don’t have to be an extrovert or a social butterfly. The research found that having a close relationship with even one sibling made a big difference to happiness levels across adulthood.As a result of their research, the Harvard team advise us to invest in the quality of our relationships now as a preventative measure for our future health.
So what does investing in relationships look like in 2017 for the Millennial generation? The ubiquity of social media as a medium of communication means that we keep in touch with friends by liking their social media posts, or, for close friends, texting and messaging. Although we may have a wide network of friends online, are we sacrificing quality for quantity? Can we develop the same depth of relationships as easily now? Whereas the baby boomer generation won’t hesitate to call a friend, on the spur of the moment, without a thought, Millennials are much more reluctant to do that. Texts are the currency of friendships, and a phone conversation is something to be scheduled in, like a gym class, or getting a haircut. What impact does this have on people’s sense of the availability of their support network?
If the Harvard study continues for another 80 years, it will be interesting to look at any changes in the quality of relationships in the age of mobile phones and social media.
Investing in quality relationships means making time, it is a long-term strategy. It is so easy for life to take over; our energies can easily become consumed with career and family. Think about where you are spending your social time. Does the biggest chunk of that time go on close relationships? It is possible to have many social relationships but no close relationships. Here are five easy tips to start investing in your relationships today.
Your relationship 5 a Day
- Identifying the barriers to connecting. What makes it more difficult to invest in your close relationships? Time? Schedules? Planning? In a busy sprawling city like London, it can be difficult to overcome geography, hurdles of time, busy diaries. Can you make some of your daily schedules more social? Can you go for lunch with a colleague at work instead of sitting at your desk? Instead of going to the gym by yourself can you exercise with a friend?
- Switch some screen time for face to face time. Instead of scrolling through Facebook again, pick up the phone and call a close friend/family member.
- Making connecting a priority. Prioritise ‘we’ time as well as ‘me’ time, whether that is meeting up with a group or an individual, we need to invest in our relationships.
- Changing the narrative. Investing in close relationships is investing in your overall health, it’s not slacking off or an optional add-on for when you have the time. Give yourself permission to step away from that to-do list and go for coffee with a good friend!
- Think quality, not quantity. It is very easy to fill up the diary with social events with people that we may not be that close to. If you have limited social time, think wisely about the balance of who you spend it with.
Our time is a finite resource, we need to use it wisely and recognize that time spent with the people close to us is also an investment in our future physical and mental health.