Moments and memories created with your closest connections are the secret to a happy and healthy life, scientists have found.
Ongoing research dating back to 1938 has found positive and strong relationships with a close-knit community can boost long-term health and happiness, while several recent studies have discovered nostalgia is equally as beneficial for mood and well-being.
What the World's longest study can teach us
The world’s longest running study on human happiness has continually found positive relationships are better for overall health and well-being than money, fame or success. Researchers also suggest having a smaller quantity of higher quality connections can prevent a decline in mental and physical health.
The findings come from an ongoing pool of data captured from participants dating back to 1938. A group of 268 Harvard sophomores — including former US President John F. Kennedy — were the first to take part in the study, which conducted biannual interviews with and medical tests on participants. The research was later expanded to include partners and children of the original sample group, plus 458 inner-city residents from Boston.
Study director Robert Waldinger said positive and strong relationships with a small group of friends and family appear to be the best recipe for health and happiness based on current data.
“The surprising finding is that our relationships and how happy we are in our relationships has a powerful influence on our health,” he told the Harvard Gazette. “Taking care of your body is important, but tending to your relationships is a form of self-care too. That, I think, is the revelation.”
In his 2015 Ted Talk, which has now been viewed more than 32 million times, Waldinger said how happy we are in our relationships has a powerful influence on our health.
“When we gathered together everything we knew about them at age 50, it wasn’t their middle-age cholesterol levels that predicted how they were going to grow old, it was how satisfied they were in their relationships,” he said. “The people who were the most satisfied in their relationships at age 50 were the healthiest at age 80.”
Waldinger again stressed the importance relationships play on mental and physical health. “Loneliness kills … It’s as powerful as smoking or alcoholism,” he said. “Good relationships don’t just protect our bodies; they protect our brains. And those good relationships, they don’t have to be smooth all the time. Some of our octogenarian couples could bicker with each other day in and day out, but as long as they felt that they could really count on the other when the going got tough, those arguments didn’t take a toll on their memories.”
Memories matter just as much as connections
In addition to having meaningful connections, creating memories of the people, places and milestones that matter the most can also play a role in overall happiness and health.
A 2019 study from the University of Cambridge in England found remembering pleasant events in detail played an important role in painting a positive outlook. “Recalling specific positive life experiences may be a resilience factor that helps in lowering depressive vulnerability,” the paper explained.
Another global study, performed by the Happiness Research Institute, found memories are a "reservoir of happiness” which can “counteract negative feelings like anxiety and loneliness”.
Lead researcher and The Art of Making Memories author Meik Wiking believes we can become “memory architects” who can manipulate brain patterns to keep our positive memories at hand. "Pay attention not only to what things look like, but sound like and smell like,” he told CBC. “[These memories can be used] as a countermeasure to feeling blue.”
Making memories is one thing, but Wilking claims you should frequently revisit these positive memories as they could fade over time. "The memory is a bit like a muscle: the more you think of something, the more likely you are to store that in your long term memory.”
Similar to Wilking’s theory, 2018 research from the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease found the nostalgia from revisiting memories could increase optimism, self-esteem and boost moods.
Study co-author Richard Cheston said nostalgia helps enhance positive psychological resources. “Nostalgia builds up psychological resilience: Compared to an ordinary memory, nostalgia is like putting on an extra layer of clothing before you go out into a winter’s night; the coat buffers you against the threat of the cold air,” he said. “Nostalgic memories are very different from other sorts of memory — they have a particular emotional quality, and concern memories that are central to how people see themselves.”
A 2016 study also found emotionally charged memories can confer health-related benefits. Published in the journal Psychology & Health, the research asked two groups of people to write about an event. One group was asked to write about something nostalgic, while the second was tasked with writing about an ordinary event. The nostalgic group subsequently scored higher on measures of health optimism and health attitudes than those who wrote about ordinary events. They also increased their physical activity over the next two weeks, according to their Fitbit activity trackers.
Finding the perfect balance
Looking back at positive memories is good for your health and well-being, but there is a limit to how much time you should spend longing for days gone. Professor of psychology Krystine Batcho said you don’t want to spend so much time reminiscing that it prevents you from actively living your life.“You don’t want to get stuck in nostalgia — you want to bring the best of the past forward, update it and use it in a helpful way,” she said. "So make sure you psychologically schedule an endpoint (to your reminiscing).”One way to your revisit old memories productively would be to digitize all your physical photographs, videos and letters so they are safeguarded for generations to come. Sorting through your old memories box will also remind you of those you love the most, which will in turn inspire you to catch up with them to make new memories to begin the cycle again.