Updated: Jul 13
Many of us have heard of the infamous Harvard Happiness Study, which states that the most salient signifier of our health outcomes is the strength of our relationships. This prognosis is a compelling one, and it relates to our physical and mental well-being in an incredibly valuable way. However, though the results of Harvard’s research are fascinating, it can be hard to understand what it is exactly about our relationships with the people around us that has such a significant impact on our health. Also, the study poses a daunting task! The prospect of trying to find and sustain meaningful relationships—for the sake of our health—can be stress-inducing. So, here is a little bit more insight into the psychology behind this finding. Hopefully, understanding why our relationships are so crucial to us psychologically will make the process of surrounding ourselves with people who enhance our everyday lives—and aid us in our quest to become healthier, happier human beings—easier.
Author: Sarah-Eva Marchese
and Anna Chard
Close, Positive Relationships are Good For Our Physical Health
Studies continue to find that healthy, fulfilling relationships are absolutely crucial in our everyday lives. Notably, in line with the Harvard Happiness Study, studies across industrialized nations continue to see a positive correlation between individuals with high levels of involvement in social relationships and the duration of these individuals’ lives. The inverse holds as well: individuals without significant involvement in social relationships have up to two times the risk of death of their more sociable peers. This is an incredibly jarring statistic, reinforcing for us all the value of putting time and energy into finding—and sustaining—fulfilling relationships. However, it isn’t just a heightened risk of mortality that should motivate us to connect with the people around us. Many recent studies have suggested that having few social ties is often actually associated with an increased risk of certain health conditions. Specifically, one study found a correlation between few social ties and increased development and progression of cardiovascular disease and cancer, among other health problems. These studies should remind us to take our social lives seriously, if only for our physical health.
One study notes the role of social support in “physiological sequelae,” meaning reduced blood pressure, heart rate, and stress hormones. These adaptive biological changes reduce our likelihood of making rash, risky decisions, and thus better our ability to emotionally regulate. They also mitigate our experience of stress and provide meaning to our lives, a crucial contributor to individual health outcomes. “Meaning,” the significance attached to one’s relationship to their child or partner, for example, often itself becomes an important motivator for physical health. Healthy behaviors normally seem to be influenced by peoples’ relationships to the people around them, a reflection of their understanding of how they are being perceived. In all of these ways, some more active choices and others more passive effects, healthy, strong relationships have been proven to be clearly worth the effort that they sometimes require. We are social beings, and our health and wellbeing truly benefits when we consciously adhere to that reality.
Reflecting On Our Relationships is Just as Important as Developing Them
Not only does preserving our close relationships have a huge bearing on our physical health, but reflecting on these relationships even has clear psychological and physical benefits. One study found that autobiographical memories, especially those reflecting on close relationships and community, tend to be closely associated with individuals’ well-being. There is something to be said for taking time to acknowledge the value of our friendships with these close family members and friends, allowing them to benefit us both physically and emotionally; as we all know, our mental health is inextricably tied to our physical health, and vice versa. The act of preserving relationships is associated, in psychological studies, with a sense of personal control. The experience of personal control is itself positively correlated with achievement and mental wellbeing! So, it seems like thinking long and hard about who we want to spend time with—and then choosing the people who feel right—pays dividends itself, providing us with a crucial sense of autonomy and an opportunity for positive reflection.
The Biological Basis of the Psychological Research
So, how does this work? How are our relationships impacting our health outcomes? Aside from what we already discussed—and what we might intuitively know—about decreased heart rate and blood pressure as a result of close companionship, recent research has been focused on the correlation between these relationships and the HPA axis, a biological mechanism that produces cortisol in response to stressful events. One study found that biological mechanisms like the HPA axis become activated when our social connections to other people feel threatened, and that closer relationships actually inhibit the activation of things like the HPA axis. It is incredible to reflect on just how interconnected our mind and body are, each so significantly, tangibly influenced by the other.
Find Community and Stick With the People Who Make You Feel Good
How can we promote these kinds of healthy interactions naturally? How can we make it easy to incorporate healthy social behaviors into our everyday lives? One article talks about the value of public spaces, like lobbies and courtyards. The more that we are encouraged to interact with each other—even subliminally—the better off we will be. So spend time in social spaces! Engage with the people around you, and try to sustain close relationships that feel important. Chances are, you are actually helping your body out in the process of engaging in something as simple as friendship.
Making sure to reflect on the relationships that bring us such comfort and joy is also crucial. Talk to your friends about how far your relationships have come, and laugh about old memories. There is so much benefit to be had in just thinking intentionally about the people who surround us, cementing our personal agency and confidence in our friendships. It can seem inaccurate to suggest that so much of our physical health is tied to our relationships with the people around us, but it’s true! Alongside making healthy choices in the rest of our day-to-day lives, we should be focused, societally, on taking advantage of the benefits of healthy relationships, which, in fact, predict our future well-being more than we know.
Glynn, Laura, and Nicholas Christenfeld. “Gender, Social Support, and Cardiovascular Responses to Stress.” ResearchGate, Mar. 1999, www.researchgate.net/publication/13093241_Gender_Social_Support_and_Cardiovascular_Responses_to_Stress.
Lekes, Natasha, et al. “Remembering Events Related to Close Relationships, Self-Growth, and Helping Others: Intrinsic Autobiographical Memories, Need Satisfaction, and Well-Being.” Journal of Research in Personality, 22 Sept. 2014, www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0092656614000993.
Mineo, Liz. “Over Nearly 80 Years, Harvard Study Has Been Showing How to Live a Healthy and Happy Life.” Harvard Gazette, 5 Apr. 2023, news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2017/04/over-nearly-80-years-harvard-study-has-been-showing-how-to-live-a-healthy-and-happy-life/.
Mirowsky, John, and Catherine E. Ross. Social Causes of Psychological Distress. Routledge, 2017.
Uchino, Bert. “Social Support and Physical Health: Understanding the Health Consequences of Relationships.” American Psychological Association, 11 Jan. 2004, psycnet.apa.org/record/2004-00212-000.
Umberson, Debra, and Jennifer Montez. “Social Relationships and Health: A Flashpoint for Health Policy.” American Psychological Association, 8 Oct. 2010, psycnet.apa.org/record/2011-00212-006.