Friends are key to happiness

Published July 9, 2020, 11:07 PM

by Dr. Bernardo M. Villegas

CHANGING LIVES

(Part 1)

The three months or so of the Enhanced Community Quarantine (ECQ) in the Metro Manila area and surrounding regions gave many of us the welcome opportunity to be in touch, even if only digitally, with numerous friends whom we could have neglected during the pre-COVID-19 days of too much pressure from work and work-related social obligations.  Obviously, the first ones to benefit from our greater attention to their needs and interests were the immediate members of our family, our most “intimate friends.”  Then we found more time to meet through Zoom, Google Meet, Webex,  Viber, etc., close relatives, former classmates or schoolmates, former work colleagues, etc.  These are the persons who give a lot of meaning and satisfaction to our personal lives.  Unless we are extreme misanthropes, spending time with our friends, physically or virtually, can spell the difference between a cheerful or a gloomy day.  As Pope Francis stresses, “the human person grows more, matures more, and is sanctified more to the extent that he or she enters into relationships.”

          Last September, 2019, it was  61 years since I arrived at the Harvard campus to start my graduate studies in economics.  There I stayed for four happy years.   I made so many friends from all over the world during those joyful (though gruelling  because of the pressure of study) times.  Although I have not seen many of them in all these years, I still consider them as some of my best friends and keep in contact with them one way or another, especially through the internet. As many of my contemporaries are also experiencing, the friends they made in their youth are the ones to whom they seem to be most attached.  In recent years, I have heard of so many reunions of graduating batches (25th, 30th, 40th , 50th, etc) of college, high school, and even grade school alumni from Ateneo,  Assumption, St. Scholastica, La Salle, San Beda, UP, PMA, etc. that attract people from all over the world.  There is nothing like friendship that can establish lasting bonds among humans.  I hope that this richest source of human happiness is not being eroded among the digital natives of today because of the impersonal way that they make “friends” through social media.  Social media should be used a means of deepening friendships rather than devaluing them.

          It was at Harvard that a group of social and health scientists established the fact that close and intimate relations with other human beings is what gives the greatest happiness to us.  In 1938, the year before I was born, scientists began tracking the health of 268 Harvard sophomores during the Great Depression, hoping that the longitudinal study that would last for more than 80 years would reveal clues to what make us healthy and happy.  As reported in the Harvard Gazette by Liz Mineo on Aprill 11, 2017, researchers involved in this 80-year study followed the surviving Harvard men (in 1938 only men could enrol at this Ivy League college) and collected a wealth of data on their physical and mental health.  Of the original Harvard cohort recruited as part of this Harvard Study of Adult Development, only 19 are still alive today, all in  their mid-90s.  I was struck by the fact that among the original recruits was the late President John F. Kennedy, whom I personally encountered at Harvard Yard when he was campaigning for the US presidency in 1960. In fact, my years at Harvard coincided with the Kennedy years.

          In addition to the original cohort, scientists eventually expanded their research to include the men’s offspring, who now number 1,300 and are in their 50s and 60s, to find out how early-life experiences affect health and ageing over time.  Some participants went on to become successful businessmen, doctors, lawyers, and others ended up as schizophrenics or alcoholics but not on inevitable tracks (which demonstrate the existence of the free will).  Throughout the 80 years, researchers studied the participants’ health trajectories and their broader lives, including their triumphs and failures in careers and marriage.  Robert Waldinger, director of the study, a psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital and a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, reported:  “The surprising finding is that our relationships and how happy we are in our relationships has a powerful influence on our health… Taking care of your body is important, but tending to your relationships is a form of self-care too.  That, I think, is the revelation.”

          More than money, fame, professional success, physical pleasures, etc., close relationships (aka friendships) are what keep people happy throughout their lives.  The mutual love among friends (especially among spouses who ought to be the best of friends) are what keep people happy throughout their lives.  These ties protect people from life’s discontents, help to delay mental and physical decline, and are better producers of long and happy lives than social class, IQ, or even genes.  Researchers who have pored through enormous data (especially using the science of data analytics or Big Data) have found a strong correlation between men’s flourishing lives and their relationships with family, friends, and community.  Several studies found that people’s level of satisfaction with their relationships at age 50 was a better predictor of physical health than their cholesterol levels were.  Also an important reason for the Philippines to avoid legislation that would go against the constitutional provision about the state protecting the inviolable institution of marriage is the scientific conclusion of the Harvard study that marital satisfaction has a protective effect on people’s mental health.  Part of the study found that people who had happy marriages in their 80s reported that they didn’t suffer even on the days when they had more physical pain.  Those who had unhappy marriages felt both more emotional and physical pain.

          Dr. Waldinger couldn’t be more emphatic:  “Loneliness kills.  It’s as powerful as smoking or alcoholism.”  Those who kept warm relationships got to live longer and happier with the loners dying earlier.  As an anecdotical input, I must say that my mother lived up to 102 because she  had countless very close friends with whom she communicated till the end of her long life.  Researchers also found that those with strong social support experienced less mental deterioration as they aged.    Psychiatrist George Valiant, who joined the team as a researcher in 1966, led the study from 1972 until 2004.  It was Valiant who gave the greatest emphasis to the role of relationships and came to recognize the crucial role they played in people living long and pleasant lives:  “When the study began, nobody cared about empathy or attachment.  But the key to healthy ageing is relationships, relationships, relationships.” 

          I am sure most of us do not have to be convinced about the importance of friends to live a happy life.  We know it from our personal experience.  Our greatest happiness comes from the love we give to and receive from the people closest to us.  It is reassuring, however, that one of the most thorough researches on human happiness has established scientifically what we know from instinct and common sense.  As Dr. Waldinger, the original director of the research, commented when asked what lessons he learned from the study:  “It’s easy to get isolated, to get caught up in work and not remembering, ‘Oh, I haven’t seen these friends in a long time!’  So I try to pay more attention to my relationships than I used to.”  It would be wise to follow the advice of Dr. Waldinger if we want to live long.  

To be continued.

For comments, my email address is [email protected]

 
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