Are Friends the Key to Happiness?

July 27, 2018
Photo of senior adults laughing together.

IN THE WORLD OF science, a longitudinal study is a research method in which the same group of subjects is observed and measured over a period of time. If there is one study that really puts the “long” in longitudinal, it’s the Harvard Study of Adult Development. It has been providing data on the same group of men since 1938. There were 268 of them then – fewer than 20 are still alive – all Harvard sophomores, including future President John F. Kennedy and future Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee. The goal of the study was to find out what factors lead to healthy and happy lives. And perhaps the biggest key to well-being, it has revealed, is having friends.

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Dr. Robert Waldinger, a psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital and professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, is the fourth director of the Harvard Study. “This is now the longest in-depth study of adult life we know of,” he says. “Once we followed people into old age, then we could look back and find what we knew of them in their 40s and 50s that could predict being healthy and happy in their 70s and 80s.”

Researchers were expecting that factors like cholesterol levels or physical activity would be the greatest predictors of a long and happy life. They weren’t. It turns out that having strong personal connections with other people is most directly correlated to overall happiness, better health and more contentment. “We didn’t even believe our own data at first,” Waldinger says. “Why would good relationships in early adulthood predict that things would go better for you physically? But other research is finding the same thing.”

Embracing Friendship

When Dr. Kali D. Cyrus, a psychiatrist, was teaching at Yale University she knew a student who was failing. The student suffered from anxiety and spent her days watching TV. “She was someone who you would say didn’t have friends,” says Cyrus, now the Jeanne Spurlock Congressional Fellow working in the U.S. Congress on issues of child and minority mental health.

The student was convinced to take Yale’s now-famous happiness class, the Science of Well-Being. One of her goals was to reach out to old friends or make new friends, and record how that felt using a mood-tracking app on her phone. She also had to ask someone to do a favor for her, which is typically very hard for a socially anxious person to do. By the end of the class, the change was remarkable. “The more she interacted with other people, had coffee dates, reconnected with people from home, you could see a visible change,” Cyrus says. “You saw her smiling more than ever. I’d like to credit my own skills, but it really was in conjunction with the happiness class.”

Cyrus also saw the same results in the general community as a practicing psychiatrist, including in those living in poverty and with no health insurance, “the ones who don’t have anyone watching out for them, who are always on our radar” for mental illness, she says. Embracing friendship as a way to improve social connections has dramatic consequences in both mental and physical well-being for just about everyone.

Friends Trigger ‘Happiness’ Chemicals

Happiness doesn’t mean momentary fun. “We study well-being, a life worth living, health, longevity – that is the stuff that interests us,” Waldinger says, “as opposed to looking like you are at a great party in a Facebook post.”

Now that the study has shown friendship and social connection predict well-being, Waldinger and his team are trying to understand how that works. “What are the mechanisms of good relationships that actually influence how your body ages,” he asks. To do that, they just collected data on more than 1,300 children of the original cohort (which was increased to include a group of about 500 inner-city men in the 1970s), most of whom are baby boomers in their 50s and 60s.

“We are trying to study how relationships help or hurt their health,” Waldinger says. “We are interested in relationships as emotion regulators, stress regulators. We all face stresses and challenges, and how we cope with those makes a huge difference in our lives.” Many people cope with stress in unhealthy ways – overeating, drug abuse, violence – and he surmises that strong relationships help people better manage the normal stresses of daily life.

“It is not just that we feel better, it actually changes our physiology,” Waldinger explains. For example, levels of cortisol, the stress hormone that triggers the fight or flight response, decreases with interpersonal connection. “We know blood pressure when stressed is lessened with a hug,” he says. Social and personal connections also trigger “happy” brain chemicals like oxytocin and dopamine, Cyrus adds. “Having social support does enhance and trigger happiness in general,” she says.

Waldinger also believes that everyone needs someone to go to when trouble arises. One question in their survey asks people to list who they could call in the middle of the night if they were sick or scared. “Having someone who you feel would totally have your back is a real safety net,” he says. He estimates that 1 in 4 people don’t have anybody to talk to about personal matters. “Friendships can provide that,” he says. “So can people you play hoop with or have a beer with. It doesn’t have to be heart-to-heart talks. And you don’t need many. Maybe just one.”

Cyrus points out that asking patients if they feel isolated or lonely “is in every single diagnostic screening” for depression. And in our current stressful and divisive social climate, she is seeing, both from patients and anecdotally, “a sense of friendships being put to the test, especially in my circle with underrepresented minorities. They are less happy, given the political context. They are getting positive support from close friends, a feeling of safety, you are not the only one going through this, someone is here for you. I see people really turning back to close friends right now.”

The studies show that may be the best thing any of us can do for long-term well-being.

Two people laying down in the trunk of a car looking out at a field of flowers.

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