Real Relationships: So Good for Our Health
Watching Barbra make that grand entrance, I thought:
"Wouldn't it be nice if I could make an equally grand exit" . . .
confirming the "drama queen!" comment I sometimes hear from one of my
nearest and dearest.
I won't leave the stage singing and dancing; I could never
do either. But a little warm applause would be nice, as long as it isn't the
"glad to see you go" kind.
Today's post wraps up the salutogenesis series I began a
couple weeks ago, in which I've reviewed the many positive elements that keep
me reasonably healthy and happy as I approach my 85th birthday in May. Thinking
about the importance of my relationships feels like a good place to end the
The Harvard Grant Study agrees with Barbra. In the late
1930s and early '40s, 268 Harvard undergraduates—all men, since Harvard wasn't
coed then—were recruited for a long-term psychological study. The men were interviewed
regularly through the decades, and findings were reported regularly.
Some conclusions were not surprising:
- Alcoholism has a devastating effect on family and
- If a lifetime of achievement is your goal, it is better to
have had an emotionally-supportive childhood than a socially-privileged
- Pragmatic, practical men are more likely to be politically
conservative, while sensitive and intuitive men lean liberal.
Other findings (Republican men are no less altruistic than
Democratic men) ran counter to conventional wisdom, or were just downright
confounding (The longer a man's maternal grandfather lives, the more likely
he'll enjoy good mental health). Hmmm. Better find out how old grandpa was when
As time went on, the study's focus shifted slightly, as the
men started considering how their pasts had affected their health and
well-being as they got older. The surviving men in the Harvard Grant Study are
now about 90 years old.
Harvard psychiatry professor George Vaillant brings us up to
date in his Triumphs of Experience, the
latest installment in the series of Grant Study books he has written since
taking leadership of the project, 40 years ago.
Revisiting the data for the latest update, Vaillant
concluded that what matters most in life is relationships.
Here's Vaillant’s key takeaway: “The seventy-five years and
twenty million dollars expended on the Grant Study points to a straightforward
five-word conclusion: Happiness is love. Full stop.”
Love and relationships are key to healthy aging and
happiness. Numerous studies validate the link between social connections and
longevity. But meaningful relationships are sometimes elusive in later years,
especially for men.
I'll invent a man; we'll call him Joe. He's a composite of
several of my acquaintances. Joe spent most of his adult life focused on his
career, and he was very successful. When he retired, Joe's business associates—he’d
always thought of them as friends—drifted away when the work connection ended.
His children were scattered all over the county; he had never really developed
a closeness with them anyway, since his job gobbled up so much of his time and
energy through their formative years.
Joe had a few golfing pals, but their conversations were
limited to "news, weather and sports." His wife had the support of
women friends, with whom she had a long history of intimate sharing. If Joe
felt the need to share something important about his own "inner
life," there was nobody available to him. He was on his own.
At a Parkinson's support group meeting, I was very moved to
hear someone like Joe describe eloquently how his life had changed for the
better after he joined the group. He started to share his deepest feelings with
others, something he'd never really done before. He learned how happy he could
feel now, just by helping other people.
In 1977-78, I publicly acknowledged being gay and alcoholic,
and joined AA.
That time was completely tumultuous, but—thank god—it changed
my life. I had been going down Joe's road. Then—all of a sudden—I had gay and
AA pals with whom I could talk about all the things that mattered.
Effort, planning, commitment
Maintaining an active social life doesn't just happen. It
requires nurturing and growing existing relationships, and developing new
For years, I've maintained season subscriptions to the
ballet series at the Kennedy Center and the stage performances at DC's Studio
and Shakespeare Theaters. I share each of these subscriptions with a different
friend, because I want to maintain my connection with each one of them. I've
joined senior bridge groups mainly because I love the game, but partly to make
new friends. I've sponsored an email group of BNA retirees because I want to
maintain a connection with my friends at the company where I worked for 40
I'm blessed with two children, three grandchildren and three
great-grandchildren who all live in the Washington-Baltimore area.
They all lead busy lives, so our get-togethers aren't
frequent. So, two years ago, I sponsored a family visit to Iceland. Last
summer, we took a Mediterranean cruise together. Those trips were wonderful,
memorable family times. I'm now talking with my son and his gal about a Norway
fjords cruise this summer.
On Monday, I fly to South America for a cruise from Santiago
to Buenos Aires. I'll be traveling on my own, but I expect to meet new people—maybe
make some new friends—at the bridge and dinner tables.
I often joke that the whole point of my many trips to Nepal
from 2001 to 2009 was to entrap the two Nepali families who now enrich my life
here in Washington. That joke has a hefty dose of reality.
I have to force myself to do some of these things, because I
so treasure—need—my alone time. In fact, my whole life has been an ongoing effort
to find a middle path between what I instinctively feel like doing and what's
best for me to do.
So far, so good.
The selfish side of altruism
A 2013 study found that experiencing stressful events
significantly predicted increased mortality over the next five years among
people who didn't provide help to others. It was a completely different story
for people who DID help others.
Economically, I started out rather humbly, but—thanks to BNA
first and Bloomberg later—I’ve ended up pretty well off. When I retired in
1994, I resolved to use my "affluence" to help others. I made a
decision that really feels right to me: to give to people I know, and not to
make big donations to organized charities.
I still make contributions to some charities. But I always
check to see how the organization is rated on Charity Watch, which examines the
amount of donations that charities commit to actual service. Too many charities
spend much—sometimes most—of their donations on big, flashy headquarters,
bloated executive salaries, and expensive fund-raising efforts.
I don't know—or care—if helping people I know will increase
my longevity. I do know it makes me happier than contributing to charitable
organizations with which I have no personal connection. Of course, I do feel a
personal connection with the Michael J. Fox Foundation and other charities connected
This salutogenesis series has been a good exercise in
reminding me of all the positives in my life. I need to keep the focus right