Positive Relationships: The Secret to a Longer Life

March 1, 2024

My grandmother loved quotes. She often used them to drive home a point while giving me advice. Growing up in Philadelphia in the 80’s as an adolescent, I started to run with the wrong crowd and had developed unhealthy relationships and habits. After getting kicked out of a public high school, I was lucky enough to get into a prestigious private high school thanks to my ability to kick a ball into a net. One night, after getting into trouble with some of my friends, my grandmom talked to me about the necessity of surrounding myself with people. She quoted Ben Stein, who said, “Personal relationships are the fertile soil from which all advancement, all success, all achievement in real life grows.”  

In all my endeavors from that point; as a college student, Patriot Missile Operator in the United States Army, high school teacher, Principal, Assistant Superintendent, and Vice President leading our Trauma-Resilient Educational Communities (TREC) model, I would often use this quote to periodically assess the quality of the relationships in my life.  I realized that the level of happiness that I had, at any given point in my life, was in direct correlation to the quality of the relationship that I had with myself, and with others.  

While traveling around the country speaking and presenting, I came across a longitudinal research study conducted by researchers at Harvard University that backed up the correlation between happiness and relationships. In the 1930’s, Five- and dime-mogul, W.T. Grant funded a study that would follow men over the span of their life. The study focused on happiness and health. The research has continued to this day under the name of the Harvard Study of Adult Development.

What did the researchers do?

In 1938, researchers from Harvard University began an intergenerational, longitudinal study spanning decades to find the answer to the question: What makes us happy in life?

Over seven hundred Harvard Graduates took part in the study responding to questionnaires, providing information pertaining to their health, and taking part in interviews to understand their physical and mental health.

  • Questionnaires: Every 2 years, men completed questionnaires asking about their physical and mental health, marital quality, career or retirement enjoyment, and many other aspects of their lives.
  • Health Information: Health information was collected every five years from participants and their physicians.  
  • Interviews: Participants were interviewed every 5 to 10 years to glean in depth information around their careers and quality of relationships


What were the results?  

  • After 85 years of research the study found that positive relationships kept people happier and healthier; more so than career achievement, money, healthy eating, or amount of exercise.
  • The happier participants were, based on positive relationships, the longer they lived.
  • Embracing community helps us live longer and be happier.

Robert Waldinger, a psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital, professor at Harvard Medical School, and director of the original study stated, “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. That, I think, is the revelation.”

What do the results mean? What were their implications?

  • Relationships affect us physically, mentally, and emotionally.
  • Our relationships have a powerful effect on our health and overall quality of life.
  • We can work to improve the quality of our relationships and choose to end relationships that are not healthy, or that cause unnecessary stress.

What are TREC's takeaways from this research? Practical and actionable trauma-resilient recommendations.

  • The TREC model has relationships at the top of its pyramid of core values which also include compassion, diversity, intrinsic motivation, growth mindsets, and mindfulness. Without positive relationships, helping professionals will not be able to develop these other attributes in themselves, their colleagues, or those that they serve.  
  • Organizations can use restorative circles to build positive relationships and remediate conflict.  
  • Relationships are not static and must be worked on by building trust through vulnerability, compassion, and cultural humility.

Craig Beswick

Educational Innovator, Trauma-Resilient Professional, TREC Pioneer, and Vice President of School Development

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