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We all agree that reducing stress and optimizing happiness is central to quality of life. Paradoxically, science repeatedly demonstrates that humans are notoriously poor predictors of what actually increases joy and buffers hard times. For example, people often feel financial wealth leads to fulfillment. However, when a group of researchers analyzed 450,000 responses to a questionnaire examining wellbeing and income, they found rather surprising results. The data showed that poverty certainly exacerbates emotional pain and misfortune, but once basic needs are accounted for, money does little to improve quality of life. In fact, beyond an annual income of $75,000, money did absolutely nothing to positively impact emotional wellbeing. [1]

So if money does not lead to happiness, what possibly could? One authoritative study conducted at Harvard University had some interesting conclusions.[2] For over 75 years, a group of researchers tracked the emotional and physical wellbeing of 268 male Harvard students, as well as a control group of 456 young men from Boston’s poorest, most disadvantaged families. Generations of researchers interviewed and/or videotaped study participants, examined medical records and blood samples, and interviewed wives and family members. They compiled volumes of data to account for what builds health and happiness across the lifetime. During the study period, the researchers witnessed some participants climb the social ladder, while others fell down it. Some men became factory workers and brick layers, while others pursued careers in medicine and law. A sample survived into their 80’s, while others developed terminal medical conditions.

After examining the data, these researchers found that the one resounding indicator of a happier and longer life was the quality and consistency of social connections to friends, family and community. Those who felt they could truly count on others lived longer, healthier lives, and felt more fulfilled. Furthermore, those at age 50 who expressed satisfaction in their relationships were more likely to be healthier in their 80’s. Those in their 80’s who were in happy relationships were adapting better to the aches and pains of old age, and were less limited by physical pain. Over and over again, this study showed that those who fared best in life were those who leaned into their relationships.

So if good quality relationships protect our bodies and quality of life, what about our more casual relationships? Research shows that even superficial human connection has benefits. Nicholas Epley Ph.D. of the University of Chicago asked commuters to either strike up a conversation with the stranger next to them, sit quietly in solitude, or continue their normal behavior.[3]

He found that those who engaged in conversation reported a much happier ride, and even noted an increase in productivity later in the day. This suggests that the person you speak to, and the topic of conversation is much less important than the choice to simply engage with another person. In short, any type of interaction can be gratifying and impactful.

Unfortunately, although evidence shows that authentic human interaction is good for body and soul, our culture seems to be growing more and more reclusive. We forgo human contact for texts, video games, and social media. Many choose solitude over group activities. However, in order to protect ourselves from life’s discontent, we would benefit from replacing screen time for family time, and our headphones for small talk. Whether it is our spouse, our best friend, the barista at the local coffee shop or the stranger sitting next to us: when in doubt, choose human interaction. Although relationships can be complicated and time consuming, they bring health and happiness beyond what we may think. With regard to our health and happiness, perfecting our love is more important than perfecting our life.

[1]Kahneman, D., Deaton, A. High income improves evaluation of life but not emotional well-being. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, September 21, 2010 107 (38) 16489-16493; https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1011492107
[2]Grant and Glueck Study, Healthy Aging, The Harvard Study of Adult Development. http://www.adultdevelopmentstudy.org/grantandglueckstudy
[3]Epley, N., Schroeder, J. Mistakenly Seeking Solitude, Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, July 2014. http://review.chicagobooth.edu/magazine/winter-2014/talk-to-a-stranger-itll-make-you-happier