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Real Relationships: So Good for Our Health
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 series.
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 professional life.
- If a lifetime of achievement is your goal, it is better to have had an emotionally-supportive childhood than a socially-privileged upbringing.
- 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 he died.
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.”
Relationships in later life
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 friendships.
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 years.
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 Parkinson's research.
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 there.