Health Desk- We all need to strengthen our relationships, according to the longest happiness study in history.
If you want to turn your health around this year, you can sign up for your first triathlon, start a meditation habit, or cut down on ultra-processed foods. But the latest science suggests that the best way to improve long-term health isn’t physical, it’s social: relationships.
Strengthening relationships by exercising what experts call “social fitness” is one of the most effective brain and body hacks. Just as weight training reverses the loss of bone density as you age, social fitness counters the downstream effects of chronic stress.
“Not exercising your social fitness is dangerous to your health,” says Robert Waldinger, MD, a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst at Massachusetts General Hospital and professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.
Waldinger directs the Harvard Study of Adult Development, the longest scientific study of happiness ever conducted. According to the psychiatrist, who recently summarized more than eighty years of data in his book The Good Life (January 2023, Simon & Schuster), the formula for health and happiness hinges on positive relationships.
“If you regularly feel isolated and lonely, it can be just as dangerous as smoking half a pack of cigarettes a day or being obese,” Waldinger warns.
But even if humans are wired to connect, social fitness can be difficult to exercise. There’s no clear roadmap for building—or maintaining—a solid social life.
“Like unused muscles, neglected relationships atrophy,” says Waldinger.
Fortunately, Waldinger’s data points to actionable exercises we can all use to supercharge our social fitness.
Study of the good life-
In 1938, in the midst of the worst economic depression in American history, researchers rounded up 268 Harvard sophomores to better understand how early psychosocial and biological factors influence life outcomes. For more than eighty years, a team led by Waldinger has tracked students and their families through marriages, careers, births, illness, and death. In the 1970s, 456 Boston inner-city residents who were part of another study focused on juvenile delinquency and resilience were included in the Harvard study.
Researchers check in with participants every two years, asking thousands of questions on topics such as mood and life satisfaction. Every five years, they take physical measurements, including brain scans and blood work. As of 2023, the ongoing study is still tracking all living members of the original participant set and more than 500 members of their offspring. A wealth of data provides a unique window into making a good living.
When Waldinger first joined the study as a young psychologist at Harvard, he had a strong sense that traditional measures of success such as achievement, status, and rewards were mere distractions on the path to true happiness. As he delved deeper into the data, hundreds of subjects confirmed this suspicion. Throughout the study, neither wealth nor social class was related to happiness levels or longevity. On the other hand, positive relationships were consistently associated with happier, longer lives.
Other large-scale data corroborate this link between connection and longevity. A systematic research review from 2010, which included more than 300,000 participants, suggests that people with strong social ties are 50 percent more likely to survive than those with weak ties. Loneliness and social isolation are linked to immune dysfunction and can even increase the risk of heart attack or stroke by an estimated 30 percent. To help prevent these negative health consequences, promoting social fitness is essential.
What is social health ?
Scientists have been studying the social psychology of humans in formal labs and universities for over a century, but the idea of flexing your “social muscles” like you would a bicep or a quad didn’t emerge until 2011. That’s when social neuroscientists John and Stephanie Cacioppo shared the results of a trial of a 10-hour social fitness training program with the US military. The team found that social fitness exercises such as doing someone a favor or practicing conflict resolution reduced loneliness and increased well-being in soldiers.
While scientists and philosophers had linked positive relationships and optimal health for decades, Kassiopopos and his research team were the first to suggest that positive relationships may correspond to physical fitness. And just as you can’t stay physically fit without exercise, social fitness—the ability to develop and maintain positive relationships—can’t happen without consistent effort.
Social Health and the Loneliness Epidemic-
When the subjects of the first Harvard study were in their 80s, Waldinger and his team asked them to look back on their lives and share what they were proud of. Almost everyone talked about relationships.
“Almost everyone said: I was a good parent or a good counselor. I had a good marriage or I was a good friend,” Waldinger recalls. “Almost nobody said: I made a lot of money, I won these awards, or I got to be the chief executive of my organization.”
The team asked the subjects: If you were sick or scared, who would you call in the middle of the night? Some people rattled off a long list. Couldn’t list any others.
“It’s real loneliness—the feeling that no one in the world has my back,” Waldinger says. “The cost of this is huge. It makes us feel unpleasant and unsafe, and ultimately worsens our health.”
In 2023, the most technologically connected moment in human history, people report feeling more distant than ever. Forty percent of older adults in America report chronic loneliness. Add in pandemic-related lockdowns and loneliness has reached record highs, culminating in what Vivek Murthy, physician and former surgeon general of the United States, calls an epidemic of loneliness.
“When you lose emotional and social fitness, you lose everything,” says Emily Anhalt, a clinical psychologist, co-founder of COA, a gym for mental health, and an expert on emotional fitness who was the author of the Harvard Study. Not included, say. “Everything in life is going to feel better if you feel connected to other people getting through the hard things and enjoying the good things.”
Like prescribing a dose of time out, some therapists even suggest that encouraging social interaction can have a healing effect on patients. Emerging data suggests that cancer patients are more likely to survive if they feel satisfied with their level of social support. Some experts also see social connection as an important signal – that measuring people’s level of loneliness gives as accurate an indication on general health as blood pressure or pulse.
A social cure-
To combat widespread loneliness and reap the positive benefits of social connections, it may seem like we’re all extroverts or party animals. This is a common misconception.
Humans are social animals, but not all of us are social butterflies. Loneliness is a subjective experience. It’s not about the amount of friends or family you have, but how fulfilling those relationships are. For some the antidote to loneliness may be a huge social network, while some close relationships work for others.
Anhalt says people should actively treat social fitness. Instead of waiting until they feel isolated, people should nurture their social lives on a regular basis, which by default enhances mental well-being.
“Our culture’s way of thinking about mental health is very reactive – we make people feel like they have to wait until things fall into place to get support.” For Anhalt, it’s like waiting until there are early signs of heart disease to do cardio. “I want to help people think of working on their mental health as less like going to the gym and more like going to the doctor.”
To exercise your social fitness, try this training plan outlined by Waldinger in his new book, The Good Life:
1 .Map out your social universe-
To kickstart social fitness, start with self-reflection. Like completing a basic strength training circuit to pinpoint weak muscle groups, the following mental exercises can reveal your shaky social muscles. First, in a journal or Notes app, outline how and what you’re devoting your time to weekly. Then ask yourself: What am I giving and what am I receiving? Am I having enough fun with loved ones? Am I getting enough emotional support? Waldinger suggests taking this comprehensive social assessment annually, perhaps every New Year’s or birthday.
2 .Strengthen the keystone of support-
Instead of aiming for total social reform, focus on improving the valuable relationships you already have. An easy way to do this is to ask our loved ones: Is there anything we can do better in our relationship? Can I communicate differently, or should we spend more time together? Based on their answers, tailor your communication or quality time to benefit your inner circle.
3 .Create a routine-
Scheduling regular contact, virtual or in person, is a great way to level up and maintain healthy relationships. Pencil in a weekly coffee date with a mentor or plan monthly Zoom calls with high school friends. Eliminate some of the logistical hurdles that make connecting feel like a chore. There is no exact representative of weekly social interactions to hit. For some, one or two a week will suffice, while others will want to schedule daily opportunities for connection. Reflecting on how these interactions leave you feeling—energized or drained—can help you find your sweet spot.
4 .Make new connections-
One exercise to keep your social muscles in good shape is to expand your network. But making friends in adulthood isn’t as easy as it once was on the playground or soccer pitch. A surefire way to hook up with someone new? Get involved in something you care about. If you enjoy cross country skiing in the winter, join a local club. If you feel like getting your hands dirty outside, volunteer at a local community garden. These activities provide instant conversation starters with people with similar interests. If you’re worried that no one will enjoy your company, volunteer your time to people who may be lonely, like the elderly. Making new connections as you get older can seem impossible — like running a marathon after years of jogging 5Ks — but the effort pays off big. Friendships shape mental health and, in turn, our physical well-being.
5 .Do emotional push-ups-
And here’s a bonus tip from Anhalt: Do “emotional push-ups.” These include conversing with strangers, saying thank you, or accepting a compliment without deflection. Start small—practice one or two emotional push-ups weekly. While there’s no shortcut to social fitness, regularly flexing your social muscles will add up to stronger relationships over time.