In 1938, American merchant William T. Grant decided to support a study that was very peculiar in those days: he wanted to analyze the life of hundreds of people from adulthood upto their old age. His original idea was essentially philanthropic. “I want to help people by offering a deeper understanding of how to use and enjoy all good things the world has to offer them,” he said. That’s how the longest study on happiness and the predictors of healthy aging began in 1938, and it hasn’t ended yet. Today, almost 80 years later, this study has become a huge project, having analyzed the life of 724 people. Year after year, these people are questioned about their health and life at home and at work as well as taking blood samples that are collected and the results compared.
From the beginning, a very clear and unusual message is observed in all results of this study: good relationships make us happier and healthier poeple. It’s not the cholesterol level, nor the amount of exercises performed, nor the longevity gene which defines good results. During the study, they realized that it didn’t matter whether the participant was poor or rich, healthy or with problems. The decisive factor for their longevity and happiness was the depth of their relationships, from birth to death.
They realized how social connections are good for us. People who have strong connections with their families, relatives, and friends are happier, physically healthier, and live longer than people with weak ties. Closer and warm relationships with parents in childhood resulted in less anxious, more satisfied, and better-performing adults in both their private and professional lives.
George Vaillant managed this study for many years, working closely with Harvard University. Throughout his career, he studied positive psychology, mapped adult development, the importance of involuntary coping mechanisms, and the recovery process from alcoholism. With these years of investigation, he had very positive findings that go against the typical idea that after the age of 30 we stop growing and our bodies begin to grow old. For George, people keep developing throughout their lives, constantly searching for new connections. Summarizing this the professor’s detailed studies on coping mechanisms (the way we involuntarily seek to survive), our body doesn’t seek nutrients, vitamins or physical health to survive in the first place. It first seeks the company of other people.
Some of us do it in a healthy way, actively seeking company, but other people create fantasies and deep psychological disturbances. Yes, in the search for connection, our body can go to extremes.
What we learn from Vaillant is that it’s not enough to consume all nutrients required at each meal if we are not able to metabolize love. At the end of the day, our focus is not on the levels indicated on medical tests, but the people we love. It’s time to put relationships as a top priority and worry about love. The good news is that if we don’t have the privilege of finding deep connections in our childhood and youth, it’s always time to look for them around us. At any age, only love can make us real and happier. Full stop.