Since 1938, the Harvard Study of Adult Development has followed two groups of men. One is a group of 456 boys from Boston’s most troubled families and roughest neighborhoods. The other consisted of 268 Harvard College students, chosen by a professor of hygiene specifically for their potential to become healthy, well-adjusted adults. The focus of the longitudinal study has been to discern the factors that best predict a long, healthy life.
The researchers who have followed these young men have maintained a stunning 84% participation rate over eight decades. They have visited homes, spoken to parents and siblings, tracked medical exams, and followed marriages and careers. The study, which is currently tracking a second generation of participants, has produced a wealth of significant data. However, in a recent article published in The Wall Street Journal, director Dr. Robert Waldinger and associate director Dr. Marc Schulz pointed to the most significant contributing factor for physical health, mental health, and longevity.
[If] we had to take all 85 years of the Harvard Study and boil it down to a single principle for living, one life investment that is supported by similar findings across a variety of other studies, it would be this: Good relationships keep us healthier and happier. Period. If you want to make one decision to ensure your own health and happiness, it should be to cultivate warm relationships of all kinds.
In fact, the importance of relationships for long-term health increased as the participants aged. Especially for older people, Waldinger and Schulz continued, “loneliness is twice as unhealthy as obesity, and chronic loneliness increases a person’s odds of death in any given year by 26%.” (The pandemic lockdowns produced more than a few anecdotes that support these findings. For example, in the fall of 2020, nursing home residents in Greeley, Colorado, staged protests against lockdown policies, with some holding signs that read, “I’d rather die of COVID than loneliness.”)
Modern life strains our most important relationships in key ways, especially family relationships. According to Pew Research, nearly 4 in 10 adults ages 25-54 are neither married nor living with a partner, and the average age of marrying keeps climbing. Also, the U.S. is the world leader in single-parent households, with nearly 1 in 4 American children living with one parent and no other adults.
In fact, these trends are shaping expectations. According to a Pew study this year, 98% of parents said it is extremely or somewhat important for their children to reach financial independence and hold a job they enjoy, but only 21% said it is extremely or very important that their kids be married. And only 20% said it’s extremely or very important for their kids to have children.
Given the mountains of evidence that point to the long-term value of marriage for both individuals and society, this is more than an unfortunate development. It’s a denial of reality. Because humans are made in the image of the God who is Trinity, relationships are as much a part of our created design as eating, sleeping, working, and breathing.
In his masterful essay “The Weight of Glory,” C.S. Lewis argued that this relational aspect of our humanity had eternal implications:
It may be possible for each to think too much of his own potential glory hereafter; it is hardly possible for him to think too often or too deeply about that of his neighbor. The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbor’s glory should be laid daily on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken. It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.
As it turns out, staying married, raising kids, investing in church, and maintaining lifelong friendships could be the most significant things we do for ourselves and for others, for today and for eternity.
Today’s Breakpoint was co-authored by Kasey Leander. For more resources to live like a Christian in this cultural moment, go to colsoncenter.org.
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