Inside Story

Social fitness

A tight network of interpersonal connections is both a buffer and a blanket

Nick Haslam Books 23 March 2023 1205 words

“The key to healthy aging is relationships, relationships, relationships,” wrote Harvard Study director George Vaillant. Tushta & Tma/Flickr

Self-help books inundate our bookshelves in a fattening flood that shows no signs of receding. Feeding this cultural La Niña is the widespread conviction that our lives, loves, minds and bodies could and should be better. That sense is amplified by social media comparisons with those who seem happier, thinner, prettier and more fully alive than we do, and by the belief that we are in the throes of a mental health and well-being crisis.

The self-help genre is diverse, ranging from the high-minded to the profane. Some books explore the latest research, bending the scientific branch so that readers can pluck a few peer-reviewed insights. Some give us simple advice, selling in direct proportion to how closely it counsels us to do what we already secretly want, such as not to give a f*ck about anything. All are supremely confident that they hold the key to improving our lives.

The Good Life and How to Live It falls closer to the first end of the spectrum. The evidence on which it rests is unquestionably the largest and arguably the best of any book of life advice. Authors Robert Waldinger and Marc Schulz are director and associate director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, a research project that has been running since 1938, and their book reflects on its many decades of findings.

The study is an odd hybrid, composed of 268 sophomores from the male-only Harvard College of the early 1940s; 456 inner-city Boston boys from the same period; and more than 1300 of their descendants. Study participants were followed intensively throughout their lives, with an extraordinarily high retention rate by the standards of longitudinal research.

The focus of assessment reflected the changing preoccupations of the times, from skull measurements, handwriting analysis and questions about being ticklish in the early days, to genotyping and MRI scans today. Throughout the four score and almost seven years, though, psychological assessments have been central.

A study whose original 700-odd participants were all male, all white, a mix of gilded youth — John F. Kennedy was a participant — and tenement dwellers, and deliberately selected for being promising rather than representative, might seem an unlikely source of knowledge about normal human ageing. But one of the compensating virtues of the Harvard Study is that despite its demographic restrictions it revealed the diversity and unpredictability of paths through life. In spite of their advantages, many of the Harvard collegians were failures, especially when considering outcomes beyond conventional accomplishments, and their life trajectories ranged from tragic downturns to hopeful redemptions and everything in between.

The Harvard Study was designed as an inquiry into adult development and ageing, but The Good Life reframes it, not always convincingly but with good market awareness, as an investigation of happiness. Its central message is simple. As George Vaillant, the study’s director from 1972 to 2004, once put it, “the key to healthy aging is relationships, relationships, relationships.” The study consistently found that the quality and quantity of relationships, whether with caregivers, life partners or friends, is at least as strongly associated with health and longevity as well-known risk factors such as high cholesterol, smoking or obesity.

This finding squares with other evidence that loneliness and social isolation kill, that social support cures, and that a tight network of interpersonal connections is both buffer and blanket. Although our societies prize personal achievement, our technologies draw us away from in-person engagement and our lives become cluttered with busyness that takes priority over our social connections (“life is always at risk of slipping by unnoticed”), those connections remain paramount.

People tend to underestimate the benefits of linking up with others, over-value self-sufficiency and misallocate their time to asocial activities at the expense of interaction with loved ones. The happiest and most vital Harvard Study octogenarians have managed to avoid these traps.

Waldinger and Schulz examine the centrality of relationships from several standpoints. They discuss the developmental priorities of different life stages, the challenges and opportunities of intimate, family and work relationships, the special importance of friendships, and the ways of coping with stress that strengthen or weaken these relationships.

Given that the gradual withering away of friendships is a bleak and consequential reality for many people, especially men, avoiding interpersonal challenges or the effort of tending to them is a major risk. The Good Life argues for the importance of “social fitness” as an under-recognised source of good health that must be monitored, worked on and taught in schools.

The take-home message that social connection is the key to health and happiness is now almost common sense. But it was not always so. In the mid twentieth century, when the first wave of the Harvard Study began, the dominant view within the behavioural sciences was solidly individualist. Psychoanalysis, at the zenith of its influence in psychiatry, emphasised conflicts within the person as the source of human misery. Adult relationships were seen more as shadowy re-enactments of childhood dramas than as sources of health and strength. Even the psychosocial turn in psychoanalysis, led by Erik Erikson, saw the main developmental tasks of mid and late adulthood as fundamentally inward: finding a sense of personal contribution and integrity.

The leading psychologist of morality of the time, Harvard’s Lawrence Kohlberg, defined the highest level of moral reasoning as moving beyond social conventions and the social contract to a principled personal ethos. Influential humanistic ideas about motivation, such as Abraham Maslow’s famous hierarchy, placed the realisation of the unique self above social needs for esteem and love. Considering this intellectual matrix, the Harvard Study’s conclusions about the value of attachment, belonging and intimacy were not preordained, and they helped to shift the study of adult development and health in a relational direction.

Readers of The Good Life who are looking for a work of science communication will be disappointed. The authors provide few detailed reports of research findings and very few numbers. Although the book sits on a vast body of empirical results, Waldinger and Schulz rely much more on extended case studies of a few selected Harvard Study participants. Their professional identities as psychotherapists and, in Waldinger’s case, as a Zen priest, prevail over their identities as researchers.

As self-help books must, this one contains exercises and worksheets for those who wish to carry out their own relationship audit. But it is the life narratives that do the persuasive work by illustrating the uplifting message that relationships matter, that they can be cultivated and that it’s never too late to change them.

Bookish people and those who read quality online magazines often disdain works of popular psychology and self-help. The advice seems simplistic, the science flimsy and over-hyped, the tone annoyingly upbeat. We can understand and fix our unique and complex selves without that kind of asinine assistance. But there is little reason to think that sceptics have their relational house in order more than anyone else. The Good Life offers a useful guide to resisting the pull of self-reliance, personal striving and materialism, and instead investing our time and attention in other people. •

The Good Life and How to Live It: Lessons from the World’s Longest Study on Happiness
By Robert Waldinger and Marc Schulz | Penguin | $35 | 352 pages