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When having a community is key to mental health

Researcher and psychiatrist Dr Robert Waldinger talks about what really makes people happy

Warmer and better relationships with other people help you stay healthy
Warmer and better relationships with other people help you stay healthy (Unsplash)

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“There’s a cliche that no one on their deathbed ever wished they had spent more time at the office. It’s a cliche because it’s true,” says renowned American American psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Dr Robert Waldinger, who recently visited Mumbai for a collaboration with Rustomjee Real Estate Developers. Waldinger, a professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, one of the longest-running studies of adult life ever done, shares insights that he has about what makes people happy.

Edited extracts

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What have been some keen and interesting findings from the Harvard Study of Adult Development?

One finding that’s not a surprise, is that people who were the healthiest and loved the longest took care of their physical health. They got regular exercise and had access to good healthcare. They didn’t abuse alcohol or drugs and didn't smoke. It’s interesting to note the number of studies apart from ours that also report the same finding. The effects are enormous if you take care of yourself. The most surprising finding, which is also what led to this collaboration with Rustomjee, is that people stay the healthiest and live longer (diseases related to ageing are also reduced and even nonexistent) if they have warmer and better relationships with other people. The people who are more isolated and more lonely get sick sooner, and they live shorter lives. That was really surprising. We actually didn’t believe it at first, but many other research groups found the same thing. We have spent the last ten years of the 85 studying why that is - How could a good relationship with your friends keep you healthy? How would that work?

Since the pandemic and even before that, we have become more and more isolated as a society. Do you think that is the case? If so, why is that happening?

It’s definitely the case, and it’s true all over the world. You probably know that in the US, people move a great deal. They move for their work. They leave their communities and go someplace where they don’t know other people, and it means that social disconnection happens more frequently because of that. Technology can connect people yet isolate them at the same time. Depending on how we use technology, it can either connect us, but if we let it, technology can isolate us (doom scrolling, social media rabbit holes, choosing content over communication). This problem of social media pushing us into camps or tribes and creating a sense of enemies and all that is an influence that is very dangerous. It doesn’t have to be that way. Technology doesn’t have to do that to us.

Researcher and psychiatrist Dr Robert Waldinger
Researcher and psychiatrist Dr Robert Waldinger

What role do communities play when it comes to connecting people and making them happier?

Spaces where people live, make a great deal of difference - whether people meet each other or know each other. We know from studies that in spaces where people have casual contact with each other often, new relationships start to form. In the office, the coffee machine, restrooms or the water dispenser becomes an important place where people meet. Rustomjee designs spaces in a way where you move through a communal area even if you are just travelling from your vehicle to your home. The spaces strike up new relationships, they strengthen existing ones rather than people staying isolated. An appealing environment to facilitate this is a must. Making meaningful connections needs bonding to take place. Areas that promote some common activity that facilitates this bonding (barbecue pits, coffee machines, community events, etc).

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How can communities mitigate generational trauma?

The first step would be people having more children to be guided by the community/village. Parents with more help are less likely to get frustrated and hit/abuse children.

It (Abuse) often occurs because parents are overwhelmed. It happens all around the world, even in the US. One more reason this communal help in bringing up children's world is because there are more eyes on the child. It’s more difficult to mistreat a child in a communal setup. The child also gets many more adults to learn good things from.

Does it really get difficult to socialise as one grows older?

This was observed in our study. In fact, when people were in their 80s, we asked them to look back into their lives and tell us their proudest moments and their biggest regrets. One of the biggest regrets was that they didn’t spend as much time with their family and friends and spent too much time working. People often neglect to spend as much time because there are so many obligations. It happens a lot with people who have children. One tends to get so focused on the child that they begin to lose touch with school friends, with the people we think will always stay in touch and be available to us.

Why does being a part of a community make people happier?

Relationships are stress regulators. We’re stressed all day long. The body reacts to stress - our blood pressure goes up, our heart rate increases, and the body goes into a flight or fight response; that’s normal. Many times, if you’re upset about something, you stay in stress mode throughout the day, and you never come back to normal. The body is meant to come back to normal after the stressful event is over. If you have something upsetting happen to you during the day, you can feel your body getting agitated. When you go home, and you have someone you can talk to, you can feel your body calm down. We think that one of the best ways that relationships keep us healthier is by helping our bodies return to equilibrium. They say that one of the exercises you can do when stressed is put a smile on your face. It forces the body to release the right hormones and reach that equilibrium. If you meet friends and family, that reaction is mostly genuine and has a much better effect. A community helps build more connections beyond just family and close friends.

Divya Naik is a Mumbai-based psychotherapist



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