In 1938 Harvard initiated an audacious research project to discover the predictors of human health and longevity. The study started with 268 Harvard sophomores, 19 of which are still alive today. This project analyzed these men extensively, from what they ate, to how much they slept, to their political affiliations, to their marital history and marital happiness. The quantitative and qualitative data collected is extensive, and includes frequent MRIs, biological samples, friend and family interviews, self-questionnaires, neuropsychological testing, labs, detailed reviews of medical records, and more. The study has expanded over time to include a control group of 456 underprivileged men from inner-city Boston, and over 1,300 children and spouses from the original cohort. Some of the men in the study went on to become presidents, JFK was in the study, and some became drug addicts or committed suicide. I would have predicted the outcomes in health and longevity were associated with genetics, socioeconomic status, family history, privilege, race, gender, weight, smoking status, alcohol intake. Some of these things may be somewhat true. However, there is one compelling variable that trumps all others when it comes to predicting how long we live and how healthy we are during our lifetime: the quality of our relationships. This finding is stunning. People that lived in community with others, had happy marriages, engaged positively with friends and family- these people were and are far more likely to live longer and healthier.
Going forward after a cancer diagnosis, I have been stewing on this amazing research. This study gifted me with a new perspective on how I think about my health and the health of my children. After cancer happened to me, a tribe of friends and family supported me that I never knew I needed so badly. My children were lovingly cared for because my father flew across the country.. Friends brought us meals for 3 weeks and asked to care for my children. I had a remarkable friend who stepped up to quarterback the situation for me. I never had to ask, she just did it. Amazing. She texted me every day to ask what I needed, and handled anything I didn’t want to. (A side note- I highly recommend recruiting a friend to quarterback this type of thing if you ever go through something like this.) One friend organized a professional family photo shoot for us 2 days before my surgery. Another friend brought me 3 weeks of groceries the day before my surgery. I am eternally grateful to these agents of grace, and their love illuminates the Harvard study results. What if we had no tribe? What if I was a single mother with no support? How would my children have been cared for? How would I have made decisions in the storm? How would I have healed? Many people face illness totally alone, all-the-time.
Like most people, I have historically loved friends and family for who they are, things I learn from them, personal qualities I admire about them and how they make me a better person. But I am a product of a mom from urban New Jersey and a Dad from inner city Boston. I exude generational New England sensibility and stoicism. Social initiation makes me uncomfortable. I like to think I could make it alone if I had to. But, per the data, that is just wrong. I need other people and my children need me to need other people. I try to buy organic food, avoid processed products and limit refined sugars for my kids. I teach and model being physically active for Aden and Connor. These things are important. But amazingly, they are not as important for health and longevity as living in relational community and working on a happy marriage. This is true for me today, but it also has generational implications for my children’s longevity and health for decades to come. I am looking for a church, this is hard being a socially progressive Christian in the relative south with an agnostic husband, but I am trying to get over my lame excuses and petty judgements. I am working on being more outgoing, reaching out more, instigating more, being a visionary of potential friendship. I have always loved my friends and family, but they are even more precious than I previously recognized. More than anything else I could do now to achieve good health- how I value my tribe, expand our community and love my husband has the most significant impact on my own health and longevity. And more importantly, on the health and longevity of my children. Science reveals John Lennon was right on what humans require.