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MIKE KEELER: It’s All About Relationships and Then Some

It’s summertime, and I’m too lazy to write something new. And, since it’s also a good time to go see friends and family, I was reminded of an old essay I wrote in 2017…

It’s about a study that started way back in 1942. Researchers at Harvard set out to determine the factors that lead to long-term physical and emotional well-being. They picked out a cohort of 268 male students and began studying them intensively. The students were subjected to a battery of physical tests that measured their bodies, organ functions, electrical activity in the brain, and overall fitness. They were interviewed extensively by psychiatrists, and had their handwriting analyzed. Social workers were sent to their homes to obtain detailed medical and social histories of each subject and his extended family. And then, over the next 78 years, each subject filled out a survey every 2 years, underwent a physical every 5 years, and were interviewed every 15 years.

Many of the subjects became highly successful. One went on to become a bestselling novelist, four ran for the Senate, one was a cabinet Secretary and many were business leaders. Though they are anonymous, we know that one of them was Ben Bradlee of the Washington Post, because he identified himself. Another whose identity we know became a President of the United States (John F. Kennedy, whose files have been sealed, so you won’t get to read about his “physical characteristics” until 2040).

But for some of the subjects it wasn’t an easy road. By 1948, 20 of the respondents were suffering from severe psychiatric difficulties. By the 1960′s one-third of the cohort was showing signs of some mental illness. One subject – Case Number 47 – fell down drunk and died.

Some of the factors that caused such negative outcomes were easy to deduce, such as smoking and drinking too much. Many of the subjects served in World War II, and those who saw combat had a much less healthy and enjoyable later life than those who didn’t. Pessimists suffered physically in comparison with optimists. And the real killer – literally – was depression: of the subjects who were diagnosed with depression by age 50, more than 70 percent were dead or dying by age 63.

But what about the good stuff, those things that lead to a long and happy life? Researchers can point to seven positive factors: education, a healthy weight, regular exercise, a stable marriage, no smoking, no alcohol abuse and “adapting well.” Subjects who scored high on five or six of these factors at age 50 had a 50% chance of living to 80 and being “happy/well”. But those who had three or fewer of these factors were three times less likely to live to 80.

Finally, at the center of all that data, the researchers found a sweet spot: relationships. The single most predictive factor for a long and happy life was the quality of the subject’s relationships. Good relationships with siblings were especially powerful; 93% of the subjects who enjoyed a good relationship with a brother or sister were still going strong at age 63.

Asked to summarize the key finding of this study, the lead researcher responded, “The only thing that really matters in life are your relationships to other people.”

(Since the beginning of this study, other cohorts of people, including women and people of different incomes and backgrounds, have been subsequently added to it; the findings have proven consistent.)

Hey, this is a Harvard study, this is science. It must be true.

So, in support of the research AND with a healthy dose of self-interest, I declare this week over! Close it down. Get outta Dodge. Go out there and see somebody who might be missing you.

Go on, beat it. Say hi from me.

Happy summer. Be well, brothers and sisters!

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