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A Homily on the Power of Relationships

Bruce Barton
Several years ago, I think it was 2015, a broad survey of Millennials was done. Are you familiar with the designation Millennial?  Demographers use certain terms to group birth cohorts to form generations.
  • The Lost Generation — born 1883-1900
  • The Greatest Generation — born 1901-1924
  • The Silent Generation — born 1925-1945
  • Baby Boomer Generation — born 1946-1964
  • Generation X — born 1965-1980
  • Generation Y — born 1981-1996 (Millennials)
  • Generation Z — born 1997-2012 (iGen)
  • Generation Alpha — born 2013-2025
 
Anyway, in this survey, Millennials (‘81-’96) were asked: what are your most important life goals?  Over 80% responded: to get rich.  And 50% said another major life goal was: to become famous.  

Lots of people jumped all over this survey to point fingers at how shallow and self-absorbed millennials are.  The fact is, these two goals are a relatively consistent set of aspirations for young people going back over a century.  Millennials didn’t invent these, nor were they the only ones to put them at or near the top of their lists.

How wonderful it would be if we only had some data spanning that century to see how people felt as older adults who had these aspirations in their youth.  How great would it be to track what had happened to them in their lives, and to see if these were indeed worthy life ambitions.

Well, as it happens, we do have one such study.  Over 75 years ago, a group of researchers at Harvard decided to track the lives of 724 people (all men, unfortunately) from their teenage years until their death.  It is called the Harvard Study of Adult Development, and it is still going on today.  It is believed to be the longest study of adult life that has ever been done. About 60 of the men are still active in the study –most are in their 90’s.  More than 2000 of the children (males and females, thankfully) of these men are now a part of this study.

The study began in 1938 and carefully tracked two groups of men: one group was from within the student body at Harvard, and interestingly, a second group came from the poorest neighborhoods in the city of Boston.  The folks who started the study picked this second group specifically because they wanted to see what effect poverty and deprivation would have on health and happiness.  

All of the study’s participants were interviewed, given medical exams, their parents were interviewed, and then they went out to live their lives.  Every 2 years, the study checked back in with them.  Some became doctors and lawyers, some became bricklayers and carpenters, some rose the social ladder, some fell victim to alcoholism and mental illness.  Every two years, the research team at Harvard called these men and continued to ask questions and record their answers. The study had access to their medical records, they routinely gave the participants blood tests and even brain scans when medicine advanced enough to offer these kinds of things – all in the name of research.

So, what do the tens of thousands of pages of data reveal?  What are their conclusions? Where do things like wealth and fame fit into our search for a good life?

Here is the number one conclusion this study reached:

Good relationships keep us happier and healthier.

The three overwhelming conclusions of this study are:

  1. Social connections are really good for us. Those people who had strong connections with family, friends and the community, lived longer and were happier than those who did not.  Loneliness is toxic. Those members of the study who reported a significant level of loneliness in their lives tended to be less healthy, showed earlier signs of mental decline, and were less happy than those who were socially connected.  And loneliness can happen in a crowd, in a marriage – loneliness is not just about being alone.  It’s about not having good relationships.

  1. It is not the quantity of the relationships that really matters, it is the quality of the relationship that really matters.  Living in the midst of good, warm, supportive relationships is protective – they are in our own best interest, in fact.  You would think that perhaps blood pressure levels or cholesterol levels at 50 would be the most predictive of good health into your  80’s.  Amazingly, when the study looked for mid-life predictors of good health into one’s 80’s, the strongest predictor was being the most satisfied in their relationships at age 50.  The people who were most satisfied in their relationships at 50 were the healthiest at age 80.

  1. Good relationships protect not just our bodies but our brains.  The data of the study showed that those who were in strong relationships after age 50 showed less mental decline than those who were not.  Being able to count on someone else being there, no matter what, was the most predictive of good brain health into our later years.

So, here’s the big takeaway:

Relationships in our lives really matter.  If we really want to set down some important goals in our lives, those goals should include developing and nurturing good, strong, healthy relationships.  You may want to push Money and Fame down the list.

And, make no mistake.  Relationship building is hard work.  It is not always smooth, it is not always easy.   They are often too complicated and too messy for our patience.  But building these relationships is critical to our happiness and health, at least insofar as this study can conclude based on the lives of over 700 people over 75 years of time.

Acorns can grow into great oaks only with water and sun and good soil and nurture.  So too with our relationships.  They need our attention, our care, and our full engagement.  Towards that end, here is what I would like you to do.  On the tables in front of you there are cards and envelopes.  Get one, and write a note to someone here at Holderness who means something to you.  Let them know they make a difference in your life.  Let them know that you appreciate them being in your life, for caring about you, for making your life better by being in it.

And then deliver it sometime in the next 24 hours.  You can drop it in the box on the way out and I will make sure they get delivered.  And, if you want to write a second one for someone outside Holderness, give me the envelope with the address and I will make sure it gets mailed to them.  

Build your relationships – at the same time they are enriching your life, they are also extending your life.  And if you're thinking, I can’t write just one of these, perhaps you are rich beyond all imagining.

Here is a link to a Ted Talk that inspired this talk today.
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