It turns out friends are more valuable than silver and gold.
Parents often spend a significant amount of energy trying to make sure that their children do well in school, excel at sports, go to college and get a degree that helps them land a “good job,” all of which will, ostensibly, lead to a good life. Learning skills and doing well in school and career is important, but what if what really matters is how well we interact with those we encounter along the way? According to Dr. George Vaillant, people with the skills to cultivate meaningful friendships are more likely to feel happy and fulfilled in later life than those without.
In the 1930s and early 1940s, as World War II was unfolding, researchers at Harvard initiated The Harvard Men’s Study, which would become one of the longest-running aging studies ever conducted. They selected 268 male sophomores to participate, then tracked them for 75 years. The goal: To identify the factors that facilitate successful careers and happiness in old age.
Although the study looked at a narrow field of subjects—young men of considerable privilege and elite academic status—the findings are believed to be universal, especially for the subjects’ contemporaries who are now in their 80s and 90s.
So, what did Dr. Vaillant, who ran the test from 1972 until its completion in 2004, discover? Cultivating meaningful, loving relationships is the secret to achieving success and happiness in old age. Moreover, income, social class, and career were completely unrelated to whether or not these men aged successfully into their late 70s and beyond. Ultimately, reaching old age and being happy and healthy when they got there was directly related to the men’s social connections. Not only that, it was their ability to make meaningful connections that facilitated greater career success, higher income, and the like, not the reverse.
But wait; there’s more. Even men who didn’t maintain or benefit from strong friendships in their earlier years were still able to benefit from social connections made later in life. A growing base of scientific evidence suggests that once we make it to later life, eating well and exercising pale in comparison to engaging in meaningful activities with others when it comes to longevity and quality of life.
It’s never too late to reach out, make new friends, or get engaged in your community. So, perhaps it’s time to explore some ways you can better connect with others in your community. Consider introducing yourself to a neighbor you’ve not previously interacted with, attend a class you’ve not tried before, volunteer a couple hours a week for an organization that you believe in, and take the initiative to have regular visits with family and friends.
If it really is all about love, what can you do to get and give more of it?
By Dawn Carr