Science Unveils the Secret to a Good Life

I love when science proves what many of us already know to be true - feeling a sense of connection and community bolsters our health and quality of life. A good friend of mine recently sent me a link to Robert Waldinger's TED talk on What makes a good life? Lessons From the Longest Study on Happiness. Robert Waldinger runs the Harvard Study of Adult Development, which has aimed to understand, at a scientific level, what makes for a good life. Since 1938, this study has tracked two groups of men. The first group of men were sophomores at Harvard (JFK was a part of the study) and the second group were boys from troubled homes in Boston's poorest neighborhoods. Around 60 of the original 724 men are still alive today. Not only are those men continuing to be studied (health records, blood tests, MRIs, questionnaires, interviews, home visits etc.), but so are their wives, children and grandchildren. SPOILER ALERT - Here's what Waldinger and his team have concluded as a result of studying this wealth of longitudinal data:

"...We've learned three big lessons about relationships. The first is that social connections are really good for us, and that loneliness kills. It turns out that people who are more socially connected to family, to friends, to community, are happier, they're physically healthier, and they live longer than people who are less well connected. And the experience of loneliness turns out to be toxic. 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..."

The aforementioned study also reminded me of a study Malcom Gladwell referenced in the first few pages of Outliers. Dr. Steward Wolf happened to be at the right place at the right time. Dr. Wolf was a physician who studied and taught digestion and the stomach at the University of Oklahoma's medical school in the 1950s. He had a vacation home near Roseto, Pennsylvanaia, and one day a local doctor mentioned to him how people in Roseto were not afflicted with heart disease despite their diet. The people of Roseto, PA had a diet that reflected the culture of their ancestral home back in Roseto, Italy. They ate meals heavy with wine, meat, cheese and sweets. They didn't work out and, while many were obese, heart disease was nowhere to be found. Dr. Wolf became fascinated and brought his friend John Bruhn, a sociologist, to help him study this town. Bruhn noticed that even though the people might appear unhealthy, there was "no suicide, no alcoholism, no drug addiction, and very little crime...These people were dying of old age. That's it."

Dr. Wolf brought in dietitians and geneticists to further help his study and dig into this healthy community despite their unhealthy eating habits. Ultimately, Dr. Wolf and Bruhn concluded that it was the close-nit community of Roseto that kept its inhabitants healthy. Bruhn said, "I remember going to Roseto for the first time, and you'd see three generational family meals, all the bakeries, the people walking up and down the street, sitting on their porches talking to each other, the blouse mills where the women worked during the day, while the men worked in the slate quarries. It was magical."

When Dr. Wolf and Bruhm presented their observations to the medical community they were scoffed at. However, as the years rolled by, the children in Roseto began to leave the town their parents and grandparents inhabited. It was only when the community began to unravel that heart-disease, among other illnesses, began to seep its way into the community.

I find these studies fascinating, but what good is it to know this information and not act upon it? The more we come together, the healthier we will be. I feel like the current milieu at home and abroad has presented us with the opportunity to put these studies into practice. Like I said before, Swami Satchidananda was head of the times when he pointed out the difference between wellness and illness.

I look forward to sharing a poem with you as a way to end the week. The poem speaks to relationships and their inherent complexities. Stay tuned!