When scientists began tracking the health of 268 Harvard sophomores, including then future U.S. President John F. Kennedy, in 1938 during the Great Depression, they hoped the longitudinal study would reveal clues to leading healthy and happy lives.
The results surprised everyone.
Body, exercise, diet, education, the money you made or didn’t make had nothing to do with happiness.
The Harvard study, now in its 85th year, found a strong association between happiness and close relationships with people such as partners, family, friends and colleagues. The study revealed that people who were the most satisfied in their relationships at age 50 were the healthiest at age 80. The researchers called the building and maintaining of these networks that keep us happy “social fitness”, and deemed it activity that “helps us live longer and happier”.
This World Happiness Day, perhaps it’s time we increase our focus on social fitness.
Also read: How to build social fitness
Relationships, be they romantic, family, friendships or work, are what ultimately make us happy, says Dr Samir Parikh, director, Fortis National Mental Health Program. “Good relationships and healthy relationships are what work as our support systems. Our joys and troubles have a social context, and it is important to work on relationships,” he says.
The idea of flexing “social muscle”, much like a bicep or hamstring, emerged in 2011 when social neuroscientists John and Stephanie Cacioppo shared results from a 10-hour social fitness training programme with the US military. They found that social fitness exercises, such as connecting with someone, doing a favour or practising conflict resolution, had the power to “diminish loneliness and boost well-being” in soldiers. Since then, scientists have discovered that it’s not just soldiers; the rest of us need to flex our social muscle regularly as well.
Dr Sophie Keller, founder of Flourishing Life and author of four best-selling books on happiness, believes happiness is a complex concept that is influenced by internal and external factors such as culture, social norms, personal values, and life circumstances. “However, close, supportive relationships with family, friends, at work and in your community, and working towards long-term goals are key factors associated with happiness,” she says.
Also read: Finding a balm for the soul by the Ganges
So, how does one finetune the ability to grow and maintain healthy social networks that promote overall well-being and optimise happiness? For one, check in with people—colleagues, friends, family—ensure you don’t bail on them in the midst of to-dos and deadlines. Dr Keller suggests prioritising quality time with people by scheduling regular, meaningful interactions such as going for a walk or sharing a meal.
A surfeit of technology means the time we spend offline with our family and friends has plummeted. The fact remains that social media has taken over our lives, but humans remain innately social beings. Dr. Parikh says online options are a fix but there is no substitute to meeting people. “It’s important to use the available online options as best as you can, but it’s critical that you also catch up offline,” he says, adding that healthy relationships need to be nurtured.
Making new connections is also a way to flex that social muscle. Talking to strangers often seems daunting, but meeting and connecting with new people can push you out of your comfort zone and open new doors. The only way to widen your circle is to make new friends. Dr Keller suggests making the time to look for opportunities to make connections. “You can join clubs, volunteer, or attend social events to connect with others,” she says. “Be open to new relationships to expand your social support network and find new opportunities for growth and happiness.”
Once the connection is made, you need to strengthen it. “Pay attention, ask questions, and show empathy, which can strengthen bonds and foster trust. Cultivate positive communication skills by expressing gratitude and avoiding criticism,” she suggests.
Another way to flex your social muscle, especially in the office is to practice freudenfreude, which means being happy for someone else's joy or success—the exact opposite of the word we are more familiar with, schadenfreude or taking pleasure from someone's misfortune. Embrace other people’s wins, big or small. Revel in your friend’s promotion, a colleague’s presentation, and a client’s IG parade of vacay photos. Finding joy, instead of jealousy, in someone else's fortune can, surprisingly, make you a happier person.
Dr Keller says the quality of relationships matters more than the quantity. “Trust, mutual respect, and emotional support are key factors in positive relationships that promote happiness and well-being,” she says.
Numerous studies have shown that helping others can boost our mental health and wellbeing. Dr Martin Seligman, in his book Flourish, writes, “We have found that doing a kindness produces the single most reliable momentary increase in well-being of any exercise we have tested.” Apart from making kindness a part of your daily life at home and at work, you can volunteer a few hours every week at a community organisation, skill-share with a colleague, offer an ear to someone who wants to talk... the list is endless.
In 2023, the world may be at the most technologically connected moment in history, but online connections have driven people farther apart. The pandemic has led to a loneliness epidemic, which makes it vital to regularly exercise your social muscle, and create connections that matter.
Also read: Why people choose to have self-respect marriages