We all want to be happy. Most of us want to live for as long as possible, and if you asked people if they wanted to live both a long and happy life, most would say absolutely! That would be great.
But how do you actually go about it? And what can actually make the most impact on your health and happiness:
My life’s work involves both helping people to be healthy and happy and to become their best selves, so I’m hugely interested in finding these answers. And so too, it turns out, are Harvard University.
The Harvard Study Of Adult Development
Harvard University have conducted the longest long term longitudinal study, totalling over 80 years so far into what truly enables people to be healthy, happy and live a long life. And the answer surprised them. It was having healthy and loving long term relationships. But where it really got interesting was when they looked into the science of why this is.
What they found is that when people spent lots of time among their loving family and friends, feel good chemicals and endorphins were released into and around the brain, resulting in positive changes to the people’s bodies. This time with loved ones literally rewired their brains, flooded their body with feel good chemicals and made them both happier and physically robust, therefore ensuring that were more resilient and lived longer.
Take a minute to really think about that.
If you spend lots of time with your loving family and friends over years, it will have a huge positive impact on your health, wellbeing and ability to live a long happy life. This is more so than any other factor- such as money, education or economic status- the study continues to find to this day. And it gets even better, as they found that your brain does not only fire the feel good chemicals when you speak to or interact with a loved one.
They found that even everyday interactions between any people, when conducted with love and kindness, resulted in the brain firing the feel good chemicals, impacting the nervous system and improving the health and robustness of the individuals studied. This finding has the potential to profoundly impact our everyday interactions with each other, as we can now see scientifically that we are designed and hardwired to benefits from treating each other- both loved one and stranger alike- with loving kindness.
You can learn more about the study by watching Robert Waldinger’s TED Talk here
What makes a good life? Lessons from the longest study on happiness | Robert Waldinger
So what does this mean for us in our daily lives?
This means that even the smallest of interactions, which we have with each other on a daily basis, can be an opportunity for important growth and development. When we are kind and good to each other, we can have an impact that is not just psychological and feels good, but physiological and neurological. The quality of our relationships are not an added extra or something to be thought lesser of; in a very real physical sense, they are a matter of life and death. Herein lies a wonderful opportunity to do real good in our world, knowing that our actions and consequences matter and are we are very important for each other. It is also worth noting that we feel these benefits when interacting with animals too, which makes sense, considering how many people have pets and treat them like a member of the family.
What can we do? In one word, connect
Walking down the street
When you see someone walking down the street towards you, challenge yourself and say hello to them and smile, especially if you do not know them. This may be a bit difficult and make you feel temporarily awkward for a few seconds, but what usually happens is that they say hello back and smile and you will get a short but very noticeable feel good feeling. This is your brain firing the feel good chemicals that are great for your health, and so will theirs! What a wonderful easy way to look after each other. And even if they do not talk back or even smile, your brain knows you have made the effort and will begin the physiological response.
Be aware of the limitations of technology
This is a very important insight that the Harvard study found: the brain did not fire the chemicals when people talked on the phone or engaged with any form of technology. The brain seems to be clever enough to know that if you see someone on a screen video call, that screen is not the person, you are speaking to a representation of that person. So social media, phone and video calls are brilliant for connecting, but for the long lasting health benefits, it is face to face human interaction that we are hardwired for. If you can get some hugs in, even better!
Daily acts of kindness
Here is another chance to re think how important kindness is in our daily lives. Think about this: if you find ways and means to help others and be kind each day, you are actually increasing the chances- on a very real physical level- of benefitting and improving the lives of not only yourself, but every single person that you come into contact with. Remember, the study found that it was quality relationships- both with close loved ones and ordinary everyday social interactions- that was the number one cause of a healthy, happy and long life. When you allow the importance of this to sink into your mind, you will never see kindness, or any good deed that you do ever again, as unimportant. Every kind deed counts. You could be making the difference and saving someone’s life: both in their number of years and the years within their numbers.
Interestingly, I’ve found in my work with people over the last 10 years- both adults and children- that we all want to be affirmed so badly. We want to know that someone cares for us, that we matter. And now we can see why, when we are treated as such and cared for, both our bodies and those of the ones who affirm us, receive psychological and physiological benefits. So try this, the next time you are with someone who is upset, just be there with them. Listen to them and resist the urge to solve their problems. Allow a warm space to open up between the two of you and the silence within to simply say, I understand and I’m here for you. That is often all that we want when we are in our need. For anyone who doubts how powerful and incredible doing this is with no words needed, just try spending just one minute with a dog who is happy to see you- you are will feel amazing straight away!
Thinking long term
And finally, think long term. When someone you love, or even a stranger is treating you badly, think- is it worth ruining your health and peace of mind over? Is it worth giving up what may be a long, health and happy life over? The chances are that it isn’t. The vast majority of cases when people treat us terribly reflect back on them, and often we are just there in the wrong place at the wrong time. This allows us a chance to build and practise our resilience- another key factor in a long healthy life- by taking things less personally.
The next time someone really upsets you, try thinking of them as an innocent child, or of them on their death bed and how they will be reflecting back on what really mattered in their life. They will always carry who they are and what they do with them- you don’t have to carry it for them. Instead, you can lessen their load, and someone else can lessen yours- to the benefit of all. Keep this thought in your mind, I’m going to live a healthy, happy long life and anyone I come into contact with, I have the chance to help to do the same. Keeping this in your mind, with what you now understand about the brain science and sociological findings behind it, could transform your entire life for the better.
I like to think of life as a journey that we all make together. We have come from somewhere, we don’t know where. Then we have our time together here, which is temporary. Then when our time is up, we go home. This simple yet profound image reminds me that we are all of the same making, we share the same place and we belong together in infinity. No one should be left out. It is my hope that we can all learn to understand just how important we are to each other, just how much good we can do to and for each other while we are still here.
And that every day offers us a chance at growth, at connection, and at a love that is life changing, if we take it.
Life is always reaching out to you- take hold and don’t let go.
Love and best wishes,