Calling all volunteers

Happiness, loneliness, volunteering, the Harvard Grant Study, and a surprising fact about 'Love Actually.' Also: 7 other things worth a click.

As the year winds down, I’d like to revisit a few of my favorite/best/most popular topics.

Today’s email is about the study of happiness, and the key thing that stops most of us from getting more of it — plus a recent study that suggests the one simple habit that creates more of it.

I’ll give you the takeaway upfront:

Happiness derives from good relationships. And if you’re short on good relationships, the key way to break the cycle of loneliness and begin to develop good relationships is to volunteer.

We begin with the Study of Adult Development at Harvard Medical School.

Starting in the late 1930s, a team of researchers tracked 268 Harvard graduates from the classes of 1939 to 1944, along with 456 young men who happened to have been growing up in inner city Boston around the same time.

Over time, it's turned into one of the most extensive longitudinal studies ever.

Perhaps the most famous and useful conclusive summary is this oft-repeated quote by Robert J. Waldinger, who is the current head of the study:

"The clearest message that we get from this 75-year study is this: Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period."

That's wonderful, right? But how do you fix your life if you don't happen to have good relationships?

An 'epidemic of loneliness'

I’ve written about the Harvard Grant Study many times over the years, and I admit this one point has bugged me: the clarity of “the answer,” with no real guidance on how to get there.

I mean, it's one thing to say that if you want to be happy, nurture good relationships. 

It's another thing to make that suggestion with a straight face, given the "epidemic of loneliness" that Americans largely feel today.

A few alarming statistics from the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration, will back this up:

  • 40 percent of Americans say they “sometimes or always feel their social relationships are not meaningful.”

  • 20 percent describe themselves as, “lonely or socially isolated.”

  • 28 percent of older adults live alone.

  • From a pure physical health perspective, researchers say loneliness is as bad for you as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

Oh, and here's another big one: According to a survey by Cigna last year, half of Americans have no “meaningful in-person social interactions” on an average day.

The numbers are worst for Generation Z.

Many of us have had times when we just felt alone. Sometimes it's through no fault of our own; sometimes it might be because we screwed up.

But this isn't about assigning blame. It's about finding a way to improve lives. 

How are you supposed to nurture good relationships if you find yourself in a rut where you don't have that many relationships to begin with?

Can we have a volunteer?

So, here’s the answer.

The key way that people seem to be able to break the cycle of loneliness and begin to develop good relationships is to volunteer.

Yep, it's that simple. A recent study of 10,000 people in the United Kingdom reported that two-thirds said volunteering “helped them feel less isolated,” according to Kasey Killam's recent survey in Scientific American

Separately, a U.S. study involving 6,000 widowed women found that those who started volunteering for just two hours or more per week found that "their average level of loneliness subsided to match that of married adults."

What's more, volunteering was especially helpful for older people, who are more likely to be lonely in the first place.

And perhaps not surprisingly, it turns out volunteering is scalable: the more often you volunteer, the more relationships you're likely to develop.

Why it works

Obviously, volunteering is simply an opportunity to meet other people, which is you’d imagine is a prerequisite to developing good relationships. Doing so under altruistic circumstances helps, too. 

Volunteering also combats the “loss of meaning” that often accompanies loneliness, as Killam summarizes: “By volunteering for social causes that are important to us, we can gain a sense of purpose, which in turn may shield us from negative health outcomes.”

Finally, people who volunteer, and who thus combat loneliness and develop relationships, are less likely to develop cognitive decline. Volunteering leads to increased engagement and stimulation, which in turn can help with relationships.

Like a lot of things in these prescriptive science-based studies, it's easier to talk about spending some time volunteering than it is to actually do it. 

But if you're not happy, and you find you don't have the good relationships that the Study of Adult Development suggests are most important, at least now you've got a roadmap. 

7 other things worth a click

  1. Divine intervention? I wrote this whole thing before realizing that Pope Francis gave an address Monday urging older people especially to volunteer, as a way to combat loneliness. (Vatican press release)

  2. After 70 years of marriage, a couple died in hospice, minutes and inches apart. (MLive)

  3. Women are better leaders than men. (Source: Barack Obama.) (NPR)

  4. Eating chilies cuts risk of death from heart attack and stroke, study says. (CNN)

  5. Why does a CT scan cost $1,100 in the U.S. but only $140 in Holland? (Vox)

  6. Just cruel: Hackers sent images of flashing strobe lights to thousands of people who follow the Epilepsy Foundation on Twitter. (New York Times)

  7. Possible mass grave from 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre found by researchers. (NBC News)

I’m not sure this last item is technically worth a click. But it’s the time of year for people to fight over Love Actually, so this infonugget might be interesting to you.

I wrote a version of this for Inc. earlier this year. Ideas and feedback actively solicited. (You read this far, please subscribe!) Find me anytime on LinkedInFacebook, or Twitter or via email at

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