A Matter of Mattering

What makes a person truly happy?

In 1938, researcher Dr. Clarence J. Gamble enlisted 268 Harvard students to participate in a longitudinal study to examine factors that might affect a person’s health and quality of life over time. His primary interest was to investigate what he called “successful aging.” What led some people to live longer, more satisfying lives than others?

Harvard researchers contacted each participant every two years for the rest of their lives. They conducted surveys, interviews, and medical exams to explore a wide range of factors that impacted each participant’s health, and overall sense of happiness. 

In the 1970s, 456 men from Boston’s inner-city were added to the study, as were the descendants of the original Harvard students. This allowed researchers to examine the effect of education, poverty, social inequality, and childhood experiences on the participants’ lives.

The study now includes over 1,700 individuals who are interviewed or surveyed every other year. In addition, they each undertake a physical exam and their medical records are reviewed to better understand the correlation between health, happiness, and the myriad of factors that affect their quality of life.

The Grant Study, as it has become known, has been chasing life’s most important secret for nearly a century: to discover what causes longevity, health, and happiness in the human experience.

It’s been 85 since the study began, and Dr. Robert Waldinger, the study’s third director, believes he has found the holy grail. 

Spoiler Alert: It’s not what you might think. 

“The surprising finding is that our relationships and how happy we are in our relationships has a powerful influence on our health. Taking care of your body is important, but tending to your relationships is a form of self-care too.” 

In fact, you can toss out every other variable, stage of life, status, or income. If you want to predict which 50-year olds will become 80-year olds, ask them about the quality of their relationships.

According to a recent summary published by Harvard Gazette: 

“Close relationships, more than money or fame, are what keep people happy throughout their lives. Those ties protect people from life’s discontents, help to delay mental and physical decline, and are better predictors of long and happy lives than social class, IQ, or even genes. That finding proved true across the board among both the Harvard men and the inner-city participants.”

Relationship satisfaction was a better predictor of physical health than any other factor including weight, cholesterol levels, diet, or physical exercise.

But what does that actually mean?

Dr. Waldinger recently appeared on the Finding Mastery Podcast with Michael Gervais where he elaborated on what satisfying relationships look like.

At the end of the day, it’s a matter of mattering. 

What matters most is that we matter to someone, and we have people that matter to us.

It reminded me of a eulogy published in the Chicago Tribune following Chicago Bears running back Walter Payton’s death. Skip Bayless described how Payton’s fullback, Matt Suhey, dropped by his house every day for nine months while he was bedridden waiting for a kidney transplant. Bayless wrote, 

“We should all be so blessed to have one friend as loyal as Matt Suhey.”

Having a friend like that matters, so does being one.

But as Waldinger dug into the data during his 25-year career, he discovered that the quality of our relationships is not only determined by those closest to us, but it’s the frequency of our connection with others that can matter just as much.

It’s being curious about those around you, and becoming gradually less unknown to them as well.

Sometimes it’s simply a matter of random check-ins, birthday wishes, and text messages out of the blue that remind others, “You matter to me.” 

It’s no exaggeration to say that our connections matter - that we can literally add years to the lives of those we love by reaching out and connecting more frequently with our family, friends, and players.

Ultimately, the most important question we must answer, that will have the greatest impact on our long-term health and happiness is this…

Who do you matter to, and who matters to you?

Food for thought.

- Nate Sanderson

Co-Host of the Coaching Culture Podcast / Twitter@CoachNSanderson


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The Finding Mastery Podcast: Michael Gervais and Robert Waldinger - How to Live the Good Life - Lessons From the Longest Study on Happiness

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