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Are you Socially Fit?

By Wendy Greenberg | Illustration by Jeffrey E. Tryon / Shutterstock.com

With so much health guidance available — reduce cholesterol, get more exercise, monitor blood sugar, get regular check-ups (all good advice) — it would be easy to overlook something like social health. But it might also be surprising to learn that something called “social fitness” can lead to better overall health throughout our lives, especially as we age.

The importance of social fitness is the major finding of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, which began in 1938. A new book, The Good Life: Lessons from the World’s Longest Scientific Study of Happiness (Simon and Schuster 2023), by the study’s current director, Robert Waldinger, M.D., and its associate director, Marc Schulz, who holds a Ph.D., emphasizes the health benefits, including brain health, of strong human connections.

Princeton is a place where those connections can potentially thrive, due to a plethora of civic and cultural organizations, the availability of activities, and even residences for older adults with communal activities as amenities. The many organizations seeking volunteers and members, including student groups, can help forge human connections. One is never too young, or too old, say the study’s (and book’s) authors.

A recent piece written by Drew Dyson, CEO of the Princeton Senior Resource Center (PSRC), described a woman who discovered the PSRC’s virtual programs during the pandemic. She tried a virtual symposium, then enrolled in the Evergreen Forum in the fall, and is now involved in a support group, an exercise program, and lifelong learning programs where she has found friends and received support.

“I was lonely and felt myself fading into a depression, so I started looking online for senior programs,” she said, as Dyson retells it.

According to Dyson, “research has long shown the deleterious impact of social isolation on seniors, affecting mortality, mental health, and self-perception. This has clearly been exacerbated since the beginning of the COVID pandemic in March of 2020.”

The findings were a bit unexpected. Waldinger said in a February 2023 Harvard Gazette article that the middle age study participants thought cholesterol or blood pressure would be an indicator of happiness in older age.

The study found, however, that important as physical health is, it is “interpersonal connectedness, and the quality of those connections,” that really impacts health and happiness. These connections can be family, but also neighbors, coworkers “even our regular barista or cashier.” New connections can be made in a bowling league or a climate action group.

Contrary to what many people think, said the authors, it’s “not career achievement, or exercise, or a healthy diet. Don’t get us wrong, these things matter (a lot). But one thing continuously demonstrates its broad and enduring importance: good relationships.

The book continues, “In fact, good relationships are significant enough that if we had to take all 84 years of the Harvard Study and boil it down to a single principle for living, one life investment that is supported by similar findings across a wide variety of other studies, it would be this: good relationships keep us healthier and happier. Period.”

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The Beginnings

The United States in 1938: A New Deal. A growing interest in what makes humans thrive. The March of Dimes is founded. World War II had not yet taken over the American consciousness, but Orson Welles’ radio broadcast of “The War of the Worlds” sure did. Arlie Bock, Harvard’s chief of Student Health Services, wanted to learn what helps people thrive, instead of what makes people sick.

The Harvard University study began with 268 Harvard students, Classes of 1939 to 1944, including the future President John F. Kennedy and Washington Post Editor Ben Bradlee. At around the same time, Sheldon and Eleanor Glueck selected 456 young men from inner city Boston neighborhoods, ages 11 through 16. Of the original Harvard cohort, 19 are still alive, all in their mid-90s.

The two studies became the Harvard Study of Adult Development, which later included women, and recently more than 1,300 descendants of the original group.

In the 1960s and 1970s George Vaillant, the director of the study from 1972 to 2004, was among the scientists who began to see adulthood as a period of “important flux and opportunity,” when positive change is possible. Previously, developmental research tended to focus on children.

The conclusion after years of personal interviews, medical data, and family interviews, by Harvard Study staff who crossed the country, has been consistent: Supportive relationships with others keep us happy and healthy. Moreover, strong relationships appear to delay memory decline. The isolated and the lonely showed an earlier decline in brain function, according to the study and the book.

Waldinger, 71, is the fourth director of the study, the longest in-depth longitudinal study on human life ever done, as the authors note. A psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital, and professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, he asked, in a 2015 TED Talk in Boston, “What if we could watch entire lives as they unfold through time?” He continued, “What if we could study people from the time they were teenagers all the way into old age, to see what really keeps people happy and healthy? We did that.”

He confirmed that the clearest message from the study is that good relationships keep us happier and healthier. “Good relationships,” he said in the TED Talk, “don’t just protect our bodies; they protect our brains.” Partners or friends can argue and disagree, as long as they feel they can count on one another.

In a CNN interview with Michael Smerconish, Waldinger noted that “People who are happy and healthiest are active in keeping up their relationships . . . keeping contact with friends and family and community members.”

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Loneliness and Relationships

The well-reviewed book was the topic of more than 300 press events as of mid-March. The first thing that strikes co-author Schulz, from audience questions and comments, is that “there is an epidemic of loneliness particularly in at-risk populations,” which include seniors and college students, “the feeling that no one has your back.”

Between 20 to 50 percent of the U.S. population reports being lonely, said Schulz in a phone interview. He noted that some young adults have a tendency to push back the development of social connections to when they think they will have more time, and focus instead on their career.

But, as he said, “life is now. Time can pass by quickly.” His advice is to “work on connections. Friendships are formed with repeated contact with the same individuals, such as regular activities. It can be a sport, a painting class … that is how we are likely to make friends.”

Schulz, 60, who is the professor of psychology on the Sue Kardas Ph.D. 1971 Professorship and director of data science at Bryn Mawr College outside Philadelphia, is a clinical psychologist, focusing mainly on emotion and relationship dynamics in the context of adult development. Schulz was brought into the study some 20 years ago by Waldinger, a colleague who had worked with him on another longitudinal study.

“People are becoming more aware of the importance of cultivating social fitness,” said Schulz. He emphasized that social fitness “is just as important as physical fitness. Activities, maintaining relationships with relatives and friends,” have a positive effect on brain health and overall health, he said. While there are no guarantees in life, “we have found that not having close connections is a risk factor, like smoking. There is evidence that close connections help maintain brain health.”

For those who can’t get together physically, there are alternatives, he said, but the more “lifelike the better. Zoom is great, or sometimes a simple text goes a long way.”

The study is continuing, Schulz reported. “We are studying more than 1,300 children of participants, actively collecting data, and looking at the impact of new things like social media use,” he said.
Asked what basic message he would convey, he reiterated that “it is important to human health to maintain connections. It is important to the physical self.”

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The Young

Humans are “affiliative,” said one local psychologist. Emerging adults (those from about 18 to 25 years old) tend to place more importance on relationships than adolescents, said Candice Feiring of The College of New Jersey Psychology Department, and director of the Romantic Relationship Research Lab there. Studies show that “romantic relationships are very important during this time,” she said.

Feiring cited a longitudinal study by Wyndol Furman at the University of Denver with 200 students that showed that more quality of support in a relationship among emerging adults compared to adolescents is more likely to result in less anxiety and less depression.

“What we know of the 18-25 group is that their romantic relationships are lasting longer and becoming more supportive and more central in their network of family and friends,” she said. “If there is a problem to solve – children are more likely to seek out parents or grandparents, and adolescents their friends, while emerging adults turn to a romantic partner.

This is a crucial time for developing health romantic relationships, said Feiring, who is working on a romantic relationship education program that would offer training aimed at nurturing skills, like perspective taking and empathy during romantic conflicts.

There is a need for programs that offer more opportunities to practice skills, she said.

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Growing Older

The example given by PSRC’s Dyson of the woman who found community by enrolling in programs and activities — one of many seniors who found that as well — noted that the World Health Organization has written about “how social isolation has a damaging factor on older adults, and that loneliness and social isolation increases the risks of cardiovascular disease, stroke, diabetes, cognitive decline, dementia, depression, anxiety, and in general, shorten lives.”

According to Dyson, “Community senior centers have long played an important role in combatting social isolation and helping older adults thrive. Recognized by the Older Americans Act (OAA) as a key community focal point, nearly 10,000 community senior centers serve more than 1.2 million older adults every day. The Princeton Senior Resource Center helps older adults in our community combat isolation through dynamic lifelong learning opportunities, compassionate social services, caring connections and support, and much more.”

“We have so many ways for people to connect — in-person, online, and hybrid options. And then there are all of our classes and workshops too — so many opportunities,” said PSRC Communications Director Kathy Whalen.

The organization’s full calendar (princetonsenior.org/virtual-programming-calendar) has many opportunities to connect in person, including pickleball; table tennis; fitness and stretch classes; game days that include mah-jongg, Scrabble, and canasta; social groups like Women in Retirement and Men in Retirement; monthly meetings, breakfast meetups, and coffee meetups; and support groups like Aging Gaily and Widows and Widowers.

Whalen herself wrote about how she helped her mother connect to the PSRC. Her mother, who lives in an adult community, was in lockdown during the pandemic and turned to a regular family Zoom, but it wasn’t enough. She signed up for the PSRC Zoom chair yoga class and was assisted by the PSRC tech team. Later, she joined, with her family’s encouragement, the PSRC Fireside Chat and Let’s Talk groups. She discovered online worship services and enrolled in online art programs.

“The friendly engagements with her peers widened her communal network,” said Whalen. “This was just what the doctor ordered.”

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Lesson From “The Good Life”

The Harvard Study is not the only study to find that relationships are connected to happiness. Other studies mentioned in The Good Life that confirm its findings are the British Cohort Study; Mills Longitudinal Study; Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Study; Kauai Longitudinal Study; Chicago Health, Aging, and Social Relations Study; Healthy Aging in Neighborhoods of Diversity Across the Life Span; and Student Council Study.

Another study, by Sir Angus Deaton, a senior scholar at Princeton University, and Daniel Kahneman tried to quantify the relationship between money and happiness. Not only did study confirm that households making over $75,000 a year were not happier, but those making less did “correlate, modestly, with more happiness.” More recently Kahneman, with Matthew Killingsworth, published a study that found that happiness does not plateau after $75,000 and can continue to rise.

The Good Life, based on the Harvard Study of Adult Development, contends that happiness doesn’t have to do with income, career success, or the number of people you know, but the quality of your relationships. And relationships need to be nurtured.

Giving a person some attention and empathy will lead to a better relationship. Waldinger and Schulz point out that time and attention “are the essential materials of happiness. They are the reservoir from which our lives flow.”

The book notes that communication is not only an exchange of information — “human touch and physical proximity have emotional, psychological, and even biological effects.” There is no substitute for being together, said the authors. The Harvard study shows that avoiding talking about difficulties in middle age had negative consequences more than 30 years later.

Even though attention to devices affects our relationships, on the positive side, social media can be used to sustain relationships with friends and family. In 1950, 20 percent of all households did not consist of a married couple; in 2020, it was 51 percent. But everyone benefits from having a “secure connection.”

A family unit can be many things. The book describes the ballroom culture in which members of the LGBTQ+ community organize in “houses” and compete in drag ballroom competitions. Houses are not physical but a “social sanctuary.”

“What matters is not just who we consider to be family, but what our closest relationships mean to us over the course of our lives,” said the authors.

“Life is always at risk of slipping by unnoticed. If the days and months and years feel as if they are moving too quickly, focused attention might be one remedy.”

The book suggests cultivating a variety of tools to be used appropriately for different challenges. “If a couple can cultivate a bedrock of affection and empathy (meaning curiosity and the willingness to listen), their bond will be more stable and enduring.”

With the pandemic, the authors went back to the study records to see what the original members said about how they got through life crises. They had lived through the Depression and World War II. They said they leaned on their most important relationships; some were with fellow soldiers.

“The support they got from others during those hard times, and later in processing them, was crucial. And we find that today,” said the authors. “The Harvard Study teaches us that it is crucial to lean on those relationships that can hold us up when things go sideways.”

Not everything has to go smoothly. “A good life requires growth and change,” the book states. “This change is not an automatic process that occurs as we age. What we experience, what we endure, and what we do all affect the trajectory of growth. One can learn a lot at an older age.”

Most of the research participants had already lived their lives before the study’s significant findings. “That’s why we wrote this book: to share with you what we couldn’t share with them,” said the authors.

The book repeats the Harvard Study’s conclusion, but it bears repeating: “Good relationships keep you happier, healthier, and help us live longer.”

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