In his phenomenal 2015 TED talk (viewed more than 36 million times), Robert Waldinger asked, ‘What keeps us healthy and happy as we go through life? If you were going to invest now in your future best self, where would you put your time and your energy?’
I remember watching the talk in 2016 and asking myself the same question. What would you say if someone asked you that right now?
He goes on to say, ‘we’re constantly told to lean in to work, to push harder and achieve more. We’re given the impression that these are the things that we need to go after in order to have a good life.’
But Waldinger has a different story to tell. He is the 4th director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, the longest study of adult life that’s ever been undertaken. Two groups of young men were chosen for the study back in the 1930s. One group of Harvard students, and the other from some of the most troubled and disadvantaged families in Boston. For 75 years, the study has tracked the lives of 724 men, asking about their work, their home lives, their health, their families. Without, of course, knowing how their lives were going to turn out.
The study has limitations – it only focused on men for a long time, and it’s specific to North America. But it’s yielded some incredible findings.
What keeps us happy and healthy into old age?
The clearest finding is that people who are more socially connected to family, to friends, and to their community are happier, physically healthier, and they live longer than those who are not. In other words, it’s not fame, or wealth, or high achievement that keep you healthy into later life. It’s close relationships (romantic or non-romantic).
The positive effect of connection on the men’s health and wellbeing was seen most strongly where the relationships they had were warm and satisfying. Crucially, where the men knew that they could count on the people around them in times of need. In other words, it wasn’t just about having social relationships – the quality of those relationships was key. Being in high conflict marriages without affection, for example, was very detrimental to happiness and long term health.
If we know that high quality connection is crucial for staying healthy and happy well into old age, then three immediate questions come to mind.
What does high quality connection look like? How do we know it when we have it?
Brene Brown’s 2010 TedX talk, ‘the Power of Vulnerability,’ has been viewed even more times than Robert Waldinger’s. After years as a researcher looking at shame, connection, vulnerability and belonging, Brown defines connection as ‘the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgement, and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship.’ In other words, the essence of the satisfactory, mutually beneficial relationships that Waldinger describes. This feels to me like a list we could all use to check in on the quality of our relationships.
It’s sometimes also helpful to define things by what they’re not. Brown proposes that the opposite of connection is shame – something all of us experience – which she defines as the ‘fear of disconnection.’
Why do so many of us struggle with meaningful connection?
In Brown’s research, she grouped people who have a sense of worthiness – which she defines as ‘a strong sense of love and belonging’ – and those who struggle for it, and tried to understand the differences between those two groups. After years of research, she came to an astonishing finding. Far from being related to income, education level, relationship status and so on, there was in fact only one difference. The people who had a strong sense of love and belonging – i.e.: the group that felt most securely connected to others and reaped the benefits of that – believed that they were worthy of love and belonging. The other group did not. That was it.
The implications of this finding are huge. Years of research shows that if we don’t believe we are worthy of meaningful connection, then we will struggle to find it. The paradox is that the more disconnected we feel, the less likely we are to feel that we deserve it. When I first watched Brene Brown’s talk, I burst into tears! It helped me to understand the way I had felt on and off for a long time. But it also helped me to see that the only thing stopping me from feeling really connected was my own mind, and willingness to do things differently.
So how do we attract more connection into our lives?
The first thing we need to do is to actively and persistently manage our relationships, rather than expecting them to just happen. Waldinger describes this as ‘leaning in’ to our relationships. Actively working to upgrade our friendship circles as we age. Choosing people time over TV time. Livening up a stale relationship, and reaching out rather than bearing grudges – and doing so again and again. He says ‘we’re human – we’d like a quick fix. But relationships are hard work – messy, not glamorous.’ In other words, relationship building takes time, dedication and consistency – and it isn’t always easy.
The second thing, according to Brown, is that to be connected and happy we must practice compassion towards ourselves first, and then to others. If we’re constantly beating ourselves up for not being good enough, then a shame spiral kicks in. In other words, we reiterate the idea that ‘I’m not good enough and therefore I’m not worthy of love, connection and belonging.’ Those studied by Brown who felt a strong sense of love and belonging were deeply kind to themselves, and forgave themselves – and others – for the things they didn’t get right.
Next, we need to have courage. Brown defines courage as ‘the willingness to tell the story of who you are with your whole heart’. To be authentic, vulnerable and imperfect. In other words, to be entirely ourselves, and to trust that others will accept us as we are. None of the people in Brown’s study said that this was easy or comfortable. It was simply necessary, in order to build true connection. We need to shine a spotlight on the fear of disconnection. Dragging shame out into the daylight, owning it, and refusing to allow it to keep us from connecting.
Finally, we have to believe that we’re enough. Building our confidence, self-esteem and self-belief. When we work from a place that says ‘I’m enough,’ we’re less likely to eat, drink and medicate ourselves to excess. More likely to listen, less likely to shut others down if we don’t agree with them. And more likely to bring positive qualities to our everyday relationships. In other words, we’ll be more open to true connection.
A summary of these two TED talks is useful, but doesn’t really do them justice. At less than 20 minutes each, I’d definitely suggesting putting some time aside to watch them!
My own journey to true connection has been a winding one. I can’t count the number of hours I’ve spent reading, listening, learning and practicing different ways of doing things. What I do know is that these two TED talks genuinely changed my outlook. Along with the wider reading and the hard work that followed, they fundamentally changed my attitude towards connection, happiness, and everything in between. And in doing so, completely changed my life.