Day one: Take stock of your relationships
In 1938, researchers at Harvard in the US set out to learn what makes a person thrive. They recruited 724 participants and tracked their lives, from childhood to final days.
Now, 85 years later, the study has expanded to three generations and more than 1,300 descendants of the original subjects. From all the data, one clear finding has emerged: Strong relationships are what make for a happy life.
In a new book, The Good Life: Lessons From the World’s Longest Scientific Study of Happiness, Dr Robert Waldinger, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and the study’s fourth director, and Marc Schulz, an associate director of the study and a psychology professor at Bryn Mawr College, have distilled the study’s insights.
If you do one thing this year to ensure your health and happiness, the authors maintain, find the time to nurture and develop relationships. “Social fitness” is just as crucial as physical fitness, says Dr Waldinger, who adds that neglected relationships can atrophy like muscles.
“Our social life is a living system, and it needs exercise,” he says. “It’s a choice you make to invest in, week by week, year by year – one that has huge benefits.”
The Harvard study is far from the only one to have found a link between our relationships and happiness. Ample research shows that people who are more socially connected live longer and are more protected against stress, depression, and declines in memory and language.
Loneliness, on the other hand, damages our physical health.
“I believe loneliness is one of the defining public health concerns of our time,” surgeon general Vivek Murthy wrote in an email.
While the pandemic exacerbated loneliness, “it also helped many people take stock of their lives and reflect more deeply on how important their relationships are. That means taking steps in our day-to-day lives to invest in them”.
Your relationships with romantic partners and community members are also crucial to happiness: the friendly conversation with your mail carrier or the acquaintance you see at the dog run.
A few adjustments to our most treasured relationships can have real effects on how we feel, and on how we feel about our lives— Dr Robert Waldinger
Today you’ll identify areas of your life in which you’d like to be more connected.
Don’t get hung up on the number of friends you have, Dr Waldinger says. It’s the quality of your relationships that matters, not the quantity.
While adult friendships require effort, happiness is not out of reach if you are shy or introverted, Dr Waldinger says. You can engage with others in settings focused on things you care about. Try small, controlled activities like a knitting group, hiking or working in a community garden.
People often assume it’s too late for them to build relationships, Dr Waldinger says, but that’s never the case. He says The Good Life had many examples of people who made connections later in life, like a lonely 68-year-old who joined a gym after he retired. Three months later, he had more friends than ever before.
Day two: The secret power of the eight-minute phone call
Think of a person you love: someone you miss, someone you wish you connected with more often.
Send that person a quick text asking to chat on the phone for eight minutes – ideally today, but if not, schedule it for sometime this week.
After the eight minutes are up, decide together when your next such catch-up will be, and then honour your time commitment and sign off promptly (unless your friend is having some sort of crisis, in which case it’s good that you got in touch anyway). Hang up and enjoy that little glow of wellbeing.
Dr Waldinger says that most busy people “tend to think that in some unspecified future we’ll have a ‘time surplus’ where we’ll be able to connect with old friends”. That may never materialise, he says, so pick up the phone and invest the time right now.
Hearing the sound of a loved one’s voice, says Claudia Glaser-Mussen, a psychotherapist in New York City, “is emotionally regulating”.
It doesn’t need to be something that appears deep for it to be deeply felt. You never know what a given encounter will reveal— Alisha Ali
In eight minutes, she adds: “I can call my friend Mary Beth from high school, and say, ‘I love you so much, here’s what’s happening,’ or ‘Listen, I want to run something by you really quickly.’ It’s a short period of time, but you can get a lot in, and it’s deep enough that all the bonding hormones start to hit.”
A hard out, agreed upon in advance, solves a common conversational issue revealed in a 2021 study. Researchers looked at 932 conversations between pairs of people and found that they almost never ended when both people wanted them to. Some preferred to continue, while others felt that the interaction dragged on too long.
When one person shuts down the conversation too early, the researchers wrote, or chats away while ignoring standard wrap-up cues (such as use of the word “anyway”), the result is what’s known as a “co-ordination problem”. A clear boundary of eight minutes avoids that.
A study of 240 adults in 2021 found that when participants received brief phone calls a few times a week, their levels of depression, loneliness and anxiety were “rapidly reduced” compared with people who didn’t receive a call.
As Dr Waldinger writes in his book, “a few adjustments to our most treasured relationships can have real effects on how we feel, and on how we feel about our lives – a gold mine of vitality that we are not paying attention to”.
Day three: Small talk has big benefits
As often as you can today, Dr Waldinger says, “seek out and notice opportunities for friendly moments of uplift”.
Ask your supermarket checkout person how her day is going. Comment on a stranger’s cute baby (few people can resist talking about their babies).
Your loose network of casual acquaintances, and even strangers, known collectively as “weak ties”, might not seem important, but it is. Brief but warm exchanges have a direct effect on happiness, Dr Waldinger says. These kinds of minute interactions can affect your mood and energy throughout the day, and ongoing research which began in the 1970s has shown that they contribute to a greater sense of wellbeing.
Yes, making small talk can be awkward. But people tend to like us more than we presume. This is what researchers termed, in a 2018 study, a “liking gap”.
“Our studies suggest that after people have conversations,” they wrote, “they are liked more than they know.”
Something that holds a lot of people back from reaching out is that they might be wondering, ‘Is it weird that I’m reaching out after all this time? What are they going to think?— Peggy Liu
So assume people like you and take the plunge. You may get rejected, “although we found that it’s actually pretty rare”, says Gillian Sandstrom, a senior lecturer in the psychology of kindness at the University of Sussex, who has led pivotal research on the positive effects of having frequent casual interactions with strangers and acquaintances.
If you try to talk to a stranger today and truly get ignored or rebuffed, she says, “remind yourself that they don’t know you, so they’re not rejecting you based on who you are”. Most people, she adds, enjoy these moments of connection, so keep trying.
Weak ties often have different knowledge from those in our immediate social circle, says Stav Atir, an assistant professor of management at the Wisconsin School of Business at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Prof Atir led a study in 2022 that suggested people underestimate the potential for learning from these interactions.
Think about times over the past 10 years or so when you’ve been on a plane or train and struck up a conversation with someone you didn’t know. Did they say something that stuck with you? Even the most fleeting connection can have an impact, says Alisha Ali, an associate professor of applied psychology at New York University.
“It doesn’t need to be something that appears deep for it to be deeply felt,” she says. “You never know what a given encounter will reveal.”
Day four: Why you should write a ‘living eulogy’
Think about an important person in your life. What would you thank this person for if you thought you would never see each other again? Quickly write down what you would say, with as many specific examples as possible: a eulogy for the living.
Then send it – by email, text, handwritten note, whatever. Just send it.
The happiest people take time to explicitly cherish the people they love, Dr Waldinger says. Writing a note of appreciation to someone, research has shown, has an immediate positive impact on feelings of wellbeing and connectedness, for both you and the recipient.
“Something that holds a lot of people back from reaching out is that they might be wondering, ‘Is it weird that I’m reaching out after all this time? What are they going to think?’,” says Peggy Liu, an associate professor at the University of Pittsburgh’s Katz Graduate School of Business, who led a 2022 study in which participants sent a short note to someone in their social circle with whom they hadn’t interacted in a while. “But the recipients aren’t thinking about that. They’re thinking: ‘Someone has taken the time to reach out. They thought about me’.”
Far too many employers leave close connections to chance. That’s a mistake— Ron Friedman
Guy Winch, a psychologist in New York City and a host of the podcast Dear Therapists, recommended a similar exercise to strengthen bonds in couples.
Write down 10 specific things your partner has done that you appreciate. Your partner should do the same. Then clear some time when you can read your lists aloud to each other. Look at your partner after you read each item on your list. Talk about how each gesture makes you feel. Then have your partner read their list to you.
Focusing on your partner’s gestures “highlights the real and concrete ways your partner shows up for you,” Winch says. “And many of these small moments get lost and forgotten when we’re in the emotional autopilot of daily life, so curating a list of these gestures is a way to give them the spotlight.”
Winch says that in his practice, he had seen that the benefits of this exercise could last months, or even years.
Day five: The importance of work friends
Reach out to someone at work – or, if you’re a student, at school – whom you would like to know better. If you’re retired or a parent who does not work outside the home, you can still participate. Consider your “workplace” anywhere you might go regularly: a class, an organisation where you volunteer or even a coffee shop.
Here are four ways to forge new workplace connections:
For someone you don’t know: One of the best ways to foster a workplace friendship is to follow up about something that a person mentioned in a meeting or a group setting, says Shasta Nelson, a friendship expert and the author of The Business of Friendship.
“Later, you can say, ‘How did that 5K race go that you said you were going to do?’ Or ‘I hope your daughter isn’t feeling sick any more’.”
For someone you’d like to know better: Invite the person to do something casual that only takes a few minutes, along the lines of: “I need to clear my head. Do you want to take a quick walk around the block with me?”
Or give a specific, thoughtful compliment, suggests Gena Cox, an organisational psychologist and executive coach based in Clearwater, Florida.
If you work remotely: Show up early on a call and make conversation before everyone gets down to business. Give a co-worker a shutout for their contribution, Dr Waldinger says, or ask them about an interesting object in their background, or about their pet dozing behind them.
You can also message them and request a quick, friendly chat, Nelson says. “You can say, ‘I’d love to hear your story about how you came to work here’.”
If you’re a manager: Before a meeting starts, try a few icebreakers: “What was your first job?” or “What was the worst advice you’ve ever received?” These sorts of exercises “create conditions where friendships naturally blossom,” says Ron Friedman, a social psychologist and the author of The Best Place to Work.
“Far too many employers leave close connections to chance. That’s a mistake.”
Day six: Don’t cancel those plans
Make a social plan and put it on the calendar. If you’ve ever told someone you like that you should get coffee “sometime”, today’s the day.
“Many of us might be out of shape when it comes to socialising,” says Philip Gable, an associate professor of psychological and brain sciences at the University of Delaware. Motivate yourself to go out by setting small goals, he suggests. Instead of committing to be at a party for three hours, he says, give yourself a half-hour, or vow that you’ll chat with three people. And of course it doesn’t have to be a party. A face-to-face human interaction of any sort, especially one that might build toward more social dates in the future, is what we’re aiming for today.
A good way to build ties is by joining a group that meets regularly, like a pickleball team. Researchers call that regular proximity with other humans propinquity and have shown that the more propinquity we have, the greater the chances are that we’ll form friendships.
Get creative. Dig in a neighbourhood community garden. Volunteer with a dog-rescue group. Join a local walking club.
A 2016 study found that people who had “multiple group identifications” – such as church communities, hobby groups, support groups or sports teams – had greater levels of happiness.
“Our findings,” the researchers wrote, “suggest that thinking more about one’s group life (and perhaps putting a plan into action in order to enhance it) could have significant benefits for one’s overall sense of wellbeing.”
Recognise that you won’t grow closer to people unless, and until, you’re interacting with them consistently— Shasta Nelson
Even for people who considered themselves introverts, the authors of a 2020 study wrote, “close human affiliation serves as a protective buffer against social disconnectedness and low mood”.
Jenn Granneman, the founder of the online community Introvert, Dear and the author of the coming book Sensitive: The Hidden Power of the Highly Sensitive Person in a Loud, Fast, Too-Much World, says that introverts aren’t antisocial but instead selectively social.
Introverts can cultivate a sense of belonging by “looking for passions rather than friends,” says Susan Cain, the author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.
Introverts can summon the resolve to initiate plans by telling themselves they’re “giving the gift of going first”, Granneman adds. “Send the text, ask the question or plan a date. You might be surprised at how much the other person appreciates you reaching out.”
Day seven: Keep happiness going all year long
Now that we have the tools to improve our “social fitness,” the work of sustaining it begins. Dr Waldinger, who created this challenge with me and other experts, offered three quick tips for the year ahead.
Tips for completing the challenge
Set specific relationship goals
Dr Waldinger advises committing to making strengthening your bonds an ongoing practice.
“Be realistic,” he says. “Could you do one small thing a few times a week to promote connections, like send one text or email to someone to say hello? Could your goal be to get together with a friend once each week?” Start small and level up.
Nelson, author of several books, including Frientimacy: How to Deepen Friendships for Lifelong Health and Happiness, suggests making a list of the people you want to feel closer to a year from now. Having this physical reminder will help you look for opportunities to connect with them throughout the year. It’s helpful to use that same specificity when making plans, she adds. Replace vague invitations like “We should get together sometime” with “How’s next Tuesday?”.
Commit to consistency
“This is a hard one,” Nelson says, “but recognise that you won’t grow closer to people unless, and until, you’re interacting with them consistently. If you are not participating in something where you’re seeing the same people regularly, like a book club, or church, then you have to set up the consistency yourself, and make that happen. That involves scheduling and reaching out and initiating.”
The relationships with the people you wrote down on that piece of paper won’t go forward, she adds, “if you don’t figure out ways to have more shared experiences and conversations”.
I am haunted by a data point Dr Waldinger mentions: Over and over, throughout the lives of participants in the Harvard Study of Adult Development, he saw friendships deteriorate because of neglect.
Being purposeful about investing time and energy in your relationships is critical for your wellbeing, Dr Waldinger says. “The frequency and the quality of contact with other people are two major predictors of happiness,” he explains.
Dr Waldinger phones the co-author of The Good Life, Schulz, a friend of 30 years, every Friday.
“We talk a lot about our research, but also about our families and our travels and all sorts of things, and I cherish it and look forward to it,” he says.
I have decided to focus on my relationships every Saturday, and to make concrete plans with people for the week ahead. Yesterday, I reached out to a friend I hadn’t seen in years, and we have an eight-minute phone date Wednesday and plans to go to dinner in two weeks.
Ritual is crucial
An easy way to make the habit stick is to transform even mundane activities into rituals. Cassie Holmes, a professor at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management and the author of Happier Hour: How to Beat Distraction, Expand Your Time, and Focus on What Matters Most, says her research showed that “among some folks, ordinary experiences with loved ones at the kitchen table produce as much happiness as extraordinary experiences like that once-in-a-lifetime-vacation”.
A nudge to make you prioritise these ordinary moments with others, Prof Holmes says, is to routinise them and rebrand them as rituals. Give them a name, like the standing Thursday morning coffee date she has with her daughter.
If you have extended family members nearby, Dr Waldinger suggests starting new traditions or solidifying old ones with them. You can try a new inexpensive restaurant together every month, watch backyard movies if the weather allows or have a family trivia night. – This article originally appeared in The New York Times