Have you been hearing about the Harvard Study on aging recently? It is back in the news and on the talk show circuit. It originated in 1937 to follow the aging process of 237 Harvard students (males in their sophomore year). Later, disadvantaged youths from inner-city Boston were added and then women. Creating diversity in the study enlarged the scope. George Vaillant, professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and director of the study for the past 35 years, set out to determine the factors that resulted in ‘happy-well’ or ‘sad-sick’ Elders. The participants that are alive today are in their 80’s and 90’s. The seven key indicators were: education, alcohol abuse, smoking, marriage stability, exercise, weight, and coping mechanisms.
Recent interpretation has put the spotlight on relationship stability as a factor that may well outweigh the traditional markers like smoking, obesity and exercise. The newest analysis of the data says that our ability to nurture and be nurtured is invaluable. The human connection aspect is not about being an extrovert or have 300 friends on Facebook, it is about deep and genuine interpersonal relationships. This is true of great marriages and great friendships. It seems as you grow older that the happy-well people have become pros at engaging other humans at a deeper level. The sad-sick have withdrawn into themselves and not only have limited interactions but more superficial relationships. A simple lesson from the Harvard Study is to worry less about cholesterol and more about friendship, gratitude and love.