If you could receive just one gift this holiday season, what would it be? I’ve posed this question to friends and clients over the past few weeks, and the answers have been intriguing.
It seems most of us are longing for things that can’t be gift-wrapped. Less stress. More quiet time. And for many of us, the chance to mend relationships that have become strained or broken over time.
The wish to feel closer to others can haunt us at the holidays. We may miss loved ones who live far away or are gone for good. Relationships that have weakened under the weight of anger, resentment or misunderstanding can fill us with regret, keeping us from taking in the joy that’s all around us.
These are the moments we sense the truth of something that social scientists have known for some time now. Though we may strive for money, fame, career success and material possessions, it’s the warm connections we maintain with others that determine our happiness – and our health.
How love and friendship create well-being
A remarkable 80-year study conducted at Harvard University reveals that close ties with friends, family and community are the foundation for physical health and life satisfaction. Scientists followed a group of 286 Harvard undergraduates as they completed college, married, entered the working world and eventually retired. The study widened out to include 1,300 of the subjects’ own children, now in their 50s and 60s, along with a control group of nearly 500 Boston residents added in the 1970s.
The results were revealing, says study director Robert Waldinger, a psychiatrist with Massachusetts General Hospital. “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.”
Study participants who were the most satisfied with their relationships at age 50 were the healthiest at age 80. Happy marriages, in particular, helped protect participants from poor health outcomes, including pain and depression. Having warm relationships led to longer, healthier lives – while those who lived alone or faced frequent conflict with loved ones faced serious consequences.
A small network of loved ones makes a big difference
The good news is that as humans, we are “wired” for connection. Though we may lose relationships over time, we can actively build on the ones we have in order to get what we need.
A 2006 study found that in order to thrive, adults need just one close relationship supported by a network of other relationships. Closeness is achieved when both parties are willing to share personal feelings and listen to one another, researchers found.
Do you have at least one person in your life who will be that caring “anchor” for you? Can you share your thoughts freely with one other? Are there other relationships you’d like to cultivate as part of a healthy network of support? Now may be a wonderful time to reflect on what your heart wants most: a sense of closeness that will comfort and sustain you, whatever life sends your way.
As a therapist working with adults of all ages, I know that building strong, caring relationships is a lifelong pursuit. If you or your loved one needs help in healing a marriage, friendship or family relationship, I am here for you. Please reach out anytime to arrange a private appointment in my Oak Park office.