The Study (Happiness Part 3 of 4)
"He was a 33-year-old man, and he had 12 best friends!" Also, 7 other things worth knowing today.
I was talking with a friend a while back. The conversation went like this:
Me: “Hey, how are things?”
Friend: “Great! We had a fantastic weekend! It’s a bummer to be back at work, though.”
Me: “Why? What’s so bad about being back at work?”
(Pause.) “Oh my God. How much more of a product of my Irish-Catholic upbringing could I possibly be? You say you had a great weekend and I immediately ask": ‘Tell me more about why you don’t like being at work.’”
With that in mind, and with apologies to my Irish-Catholic readers, I think we should probably take one more day this week to talk about happiness. Actually, two days (tomorrow, too).
So, let’s talk about the classic Christmas movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
You'll remember Jimmy Stewart's character, George Bailey—and you might even remember the book inscription at the very end that sums up the movie's theme:
"Dear George, Remember no man is a failure who has friends."
Here's a clip:
Why are we talking about a Christmas movie halfway between St. Patrick’s Day and Easter? Because it sums up perfectly one of the key findings of an 84-year (and counting) study of human development at Harvard University called the Grant Study:
"The lessons aren't about wealth or fame or working harder and harder. The clearest message … is this: Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period."
That's Dr. Robert Waldinger, the Harvard psychiatrist who has been running the Grant Study for almost 20 years (he’s the fourth person in charge in its history; he also gave a wildly successful TED talk, with something like 41 million views.)
As you might know, it followed the lives of graduates of Harvard University beginning in 1938, including men like (they were all men) future President John F. Kennedy, and Ben Bradlee, who would go on to become editor of The Washington Post during Watergate.
By the 1970s, the study was paired with another research program that had followed men from inner-city Boston, beginning in the 1940s.
I think about a dozen of the 268 men originally in the Harvard study are still alive. Most served in World War II, all were white. Some achieved great success like Kennedy and Bradlee; others failed to live up to their potential. Now, they’ve moved on to a second generation study.
While there were many aspects of the men's lives that were striking, Waldinger says there are three key findings about relationships that predicted how happy and healthy the men were as they grew older.
1. Loneliness kills.
"People who are more isolated than they want to be from others find that they are less happy, their health declines earlier in midlife, their brain functioning declines sooner and they live shorter lives than people who are not lonely. And the sad fact is that at any given time, more than one in five Americans will report that they're lonely.”
2. Quality of relationships matters more than quantity.
"It turns out that living in the midst of conflict is really bad for our health. High-conflict marriages, for example, without much affection, turn out to be very bad for our health, perhaps worse than getting divorced. And living in the midst of good, warm relationships is protective.
3. Good relationships protect the brain.
"People who are in relationships where they really feel they can count on the other person in times of need, those people's memories stay sharper longer. And the people in relationships where they feel they really can't count on the other one, those are the people who experience earlier memory decline."
(Slightly cynical counterpoint: It might also be that privileged 1930s Harvard graduates had more time and inclination to nurture friendships, because they had more success and financial freedom to begin with.)
Anyway, if you’ve been reading me a while, you know I tend to go back to the Grant Study now and again. It’s got some intriguing lessons, but also, to be honest: People like to read about it, and I’m a capitalist, and I write for a living, so ...
(I hope I can consider all of you as friends, at least as far as this medium can take us, and friends should usually be honest with each other.)
That said, friendships are hard to make, and sometimes harder to keep. I sometimes like to quote the writer and comedian John Mulaney:
I think that’s the greatest miracle of Jesus, truly. He was a 33-year-old man, and he had 12 best friends! And they were not his wife’s friends’ husbands! And he didn’t meet them a long time ago in school!”
He’s right; it certainly can be hard! But if the Harvard folks are right, it’s also important.
OK, I’m excited to hear what you all have to say in response to today’s newsletter, and almost more excited for what I’ll ask you tomorrow.
7 other things worth knowing today
Staggering, if true: NATO says it estimates Russian forces have suffered 40,000 casualties since February 25 in Ukraine, including between 7,000 and 15,000 soldiers killed in action (the remainder included wounded, missing, and captured troops). By way of comparison, in the entire 20-year U.S. War on Terror, the United States lost 7,008 service members killed and 50,422 wounded. (AP)
Madeleine Albright, the 64th U.S. secretary of state and the first woman to ever serve in the role, died of cancer, her family said. She was 84. (Twitter)
Just in case I didn’t realize what a difficult business I’ve somehow chosen to work in, reports are that the largest shareholders at BuzzFeed are pushing its CEO to shut down the digital media company’s entire news operation, in favor of its advertising and commerce divisions. (CNBC)
The SEC proposed new rules this week requiring publicly traded companies to disclose risks posed by climate change and by attempts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. (ArsTechnica)
Prince William and Kate Middleton visited Jamaica this week as part of a tour of Commonwealth countries, where they found protests against the royal family. Now, reports are that the Caribbean country has already begun the process of removing the Queen as head of state and becoming a republic. (Independent)
Don’t worry, I’ll keep the politics down to a dull roar on Understandably. But, I’d like to share this story about the lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania running against U.S. Rep. Connor Lamb for the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate purely for the eye-catching headline: Will Fetterman Silence Lamb in Pennsylvania Senate Face-Off? (The Daily Beast)
I can’t believe I missed this last month, but as if to prove that nobody in America can agree about anything, and in the wake of California passing a law to phase out gasoline-powered leaf blowers and the city of Atlanta considering one, there’s now a bill in the Georgia state legislature that would prohibit towns from banning them. (Axios)