Social Fitness

The most important aspect for a healthier, more satisfied life, according to the longest study EVER on Happiness.
Photo Credits: Helmut Newton for Nova 1973
January 25, 2024

If you had to single out one factor, JUST ONE, that best determines a good life, what would it be? I’ll give you a hint: it is why we go to school and the reason we strive to find our calling and the love of our life. It is why we work, why we play. The reason for it all lies primarily in one thing. Our existence depends on our ability to find where we belong. It’s this feeling of belonging that makes us feel connected and purposeful in life.

According to the longest-running study on human happiness and well-being, the one thing we can do in our lives that will have the biggest effect on our bodies, mind, heart and soul is to prioritize and nurture the quality of our connections with others.

Dr. Robert Waldinger, a psychiatrist and professor at Harvard Medical School, has led the Harvard Study of Adult Development, since it began in 1938 and which continues to this day (!!!). It has followed the lives of two groups: one comprising Harvard College sophomores and the other comprising young men from Boston’s disadvantaged neighborhoods. As time passed, their wives and children were also brought into and followed in the study.

The primary goal of this study has been to identify the different factors that contribute to our overall wellbeing. It has generated many valuable insights by examining various aspects of the participants’ lives, including their physical and mental health, relationships, work, and personal development. For its entire 85-year duration to date, the conclusion remains the same: the most consistently powerful predictor of life satisfaction is the quality of our relationships.

The study has proven that social isolation, resulting in loneliness, has been highly detrimental to the physical and mental health in its participants. Those who’ve felt lonely have experienced poorer physical and mental health, and their overall quality of life has consequently suffered. But the study has proven that quality is what counts more than quantity: that it is not the number but the quality of those relationships that matters. Think of it as social fitness, if you will. Just as our bodies require the right exercise and nutrition, our relationships too require the right kind of consistent attention and nurturing. And no one recipe fits all.

Good friends, good books and a sleepy conscience: this is the ideal life.
(By “sleepy conscience,” he meant a clear conscience that allows for peaceful rest, I verified)


So how do we assess our social fitness? Essentially the question of how many relationships and how often we indulge in them is a matter of knowing what is right for each individual. It’s about evaluating how much we feel connected and how much we might yearn for more connection. How meaningful we define a relationship has everything to do with how easily and authentically we can express our true selves and reciprocally experience the same from another. What we deeply desire is to be recognized and truly seen for who we are, and to feel that the other wholeheartedly supports and stands by us. Our social fitness essentially relies upon our shared vulnerability (thank you, Brene Brown), upon mutual authenticity and compassion, and MOST IMPORTANTLY our shared (and endearing) flawed humanness.

When asked in what way this study has affected his life, Dr. Waldinger’s answer was, “Knowing there isn’t anyone who doesn’t struggle makes me feel less alone.”

And this brings another crucial point to mind. How exactly can we build our social muscle, and get into better social shape? The answer is what I might call emotional intelligence training. The study found that those who enjoy better relationships and overall well-being have higher emotional intelligence. That is, a heightened self-awareness and practice in “working on themselves” to understand and better manage their emotions.

For more details about the study, check out—-> over nearly 80 years harvard study has been showing how to live a healthy and happy life

And now to my last point, which honestly I cannot word any better than formidable, sensitive and brilliant Barbara Striesand does:

People who need people
Are the luckiest people in the world
We’re children, needing other children
And yet letting a grown-up pride
Hide all the need inside
Acting more like children than children
—Barbara Streisand, ‘People’


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