If I were to ask you to make a New Year’s Resolution for your own happiness, what would your resolution be? Perhaps go on a long-anticipated vacation to France? Drop some of that weight that would help you get about on your own more easily? Or, just win the lottery and become an overnight millionaire?
According to a group of Harvard scientists who have been following a panel of 724 individuals and their families for 85 years, a happy life is not about things, places or money. It’s about nurturing strong relationships over the long haul. Relationships, they point out, are like sports training. Training to be physically fit is not a one shot affair. It’s about working and stretching and building your muscles and endurance. It even takes a team to make that kind of fitness happen.
People who have a durable network of friends, and perhaps even a “best friend” over the long haul, have quantifiably happier lives. It’s a kind of mental health and physical health insurance policy that helps people weather personal loss, ward off depression or memory loss and even live longer. Think of the alternative. We all know folks who are socially isolated…no surprise that the rates of depression among isolated individuals is high. During the protracted quarantines of the initial wave of the COVID pandemic, it was the folks who did not have people to whom they could reach out or from whom they could expect outreach who suffered mentally and had the poorest health outcomes from sickness.
So, how does a person strengthen relationships?
- It’s not just more friends; it’s also the quality of those relationships…the people in whom you can confide and who, in return, will share innermost thoughts, desires and fears with you. It’s not just a numbers game.
- It’s not just for extroverts; it’s also the small book club or the community garden team or a hiking friend with whom you can talk as well as walk. It may be just a few one-on-one relationships you have that will support you far more than a community club or such.
- It’s not too late to make those strong friends; it’s about what you do today to reach out and make yourself as available to “new friends” as it is about retaining your lifelong friends.
Making and keeping friends is an ongoing process, and the outcomes may surprise you. In welcoming new folks to your community club or church or condo association you may find the next strong relationship that nourishes both you and the new friend. People with whom you have lost contact may be as delighted as you when you reach out to renew acquaintances. The person you know with a different political leaning may be just what you need in a friend if you both can look beyond the politics and find the commonalities. Or when you go to the next gathering of whatever group and make a simple commitment to talk to three new people before you allow yourself to seek a safe corner to settle or call it a day. And, like physical training, strength comes from repeated effort and mixing up the routine in new ways that make our muscles work harder. Think strong!
Charlotte Bishop is an Aging Life Care Advisor, Geriatric Care Manager and founder of, certified professionals who are geriatric advocates, resources, counselors and friends to older adults and their families in metropolitan Chicago. She also is the co-author of How Do I Know You? A Caregiver’s Lifesaver for Dealing with Dementia.