MARY OOMMEN –
Eight decades ago, a team of researchers began what has become the world’s longest study of adult life. They started tracking the lives of 724 men, following up with each one on an annual basis to ask about their work, home, relationships and health. The participants were drawn from two groups: the first comprised students from Harvard who has finished college during World War II; most people from this group went on to serve in the war. The second group of boys came from Boston’s poorest neighbourhoods, selected specifically because they were from some of the most troubled and underprivileged families in the area.
While some very interesting facts emerged from the study, the one key finding that it threw up was that it was the quality of our close social relationships, more than money or fame, that kept people happy throughout their lives. Those who nurtured strong relationships got to live longer and healthier lives, while those who were loners often died earlier. Happy and warm relationships seemed to give people strength when faced with troubled times, helped delay mental and physical decline and proved to be better predictors of the length of life than economic status, social class, IQ or even genes.
Unfortunately, people today are spending more time on digital devices instead of nurturing relationships. Ask people today how they communicate with friends, and chances are that they will probably hold up their smartphones. While there is no doubt that people are definitely more “connected” today, these online interactions have made relationships with friends superficial and are not emotionally satisfying. Social media, with its curated content, can give the impression that the lives of others are way better than ours, it can make us feel like we’re missing out or falling behind, causing a sense of guilt, and lower self-esteem.
On an average, people are spending an astounding 4.7 hours per day on their smartphone surfing social media sites. Since most of us are only awake for roughly 15 hours a day, it means that the average person spends a third of his or her time on the phone and checks social media at least once per hour. Compared with previous decades, young people today are less likely to get together with their friends. Not because they are spending more time on homework, extracurricular activities or at work but because they are now spending a large part of their time online.
The study also revealed that it is not the number of friends you may have, but it’s the quality of your close relationships that really matters. Young people today boast of hundreds and thousands of friends that they may have on Facebook or who follow them on Instagram. On being questioned about how many of these friends they can really count on when the going got tough, there is usually a large pause. An interesting survey undertaken in the US suggested that people had an average of 3 to 4 really close friends back in the 1980s. By the year 2006, this number had dropped and as many as 2.25 percent of those surveyed said that they couldn’t name even one close friend.
It is both sad and worrying to think that there are people who feel they have no one they can turn to during life’s challenges. It is no wonder that the World Health Organization reports 350 million cases of depression worldwide. The Harvard Study has clearly proved that strong relationships are vital for both individuals and society as a whole, so investing in them is crucial. If you want to be happier and have stronger, positive relationships, try replacing screen time with people time, liven up a stale relationship by doing something together, such as going for long walks or sharing a special meal, or reach out to a family member or friend who you haven’t spoken to in years.
Make an effort to spend time with people you know and care about. This is far better for your mental health than interacting through on-line messaging. It will be these warm and close relationships, that will positively affect both your physical and emotional health and lead to a longer and happier life.