Recently I taught a series on “The Pursuit of Happiness” and concluded, based on all the research I had done, that most adult Americans are unhappy. I then spent several weeks considering the various factors that impact our level of joy and happiness.
In one of our sessions I shared the following:
In the late 1930’s, a group of 268 young men, including John F. Kennedy and Ben Bradlee (who would later become editor of The Washington Post), entered Harvard University as freshmen. They were highly intelligent, affluent and ambitious as they joined the freshman class of one of the world’s most highly acclaimed universities.
Yet, these were no ordinary Harvard men. This specially chosen group was subject to one of the century’s most fascinating longitudinal studies. They were offered and accepted into an academic study as sophomores to be observed. Today, members still living have been studied for more than 70 years. Results from the study, known as The Grant Study, have become well-known across the world in our pursuit to understand what makes us happy.
As some of our best and brightest men of their time, these men suffered from various issues including alcoholism, depression and broken families. After sifting through the data and research on their lives, George Vaillant, who oversaw the study for decades, concluded that healthy relationships with family and friends are the single most important variable that contributes to our happiness.
I then asked the question, “Can a person be truly happy if they struggle with loneliness?” The unanimous response was “no.” Of course the reason is because we were designed by God to be relational beings.
What I find to be so amazing is how men are driven by achievement and the accumulation of wealth. However once they achieve their goals or accumulate great wealth, they find it does not satisfy. It fails to give us any degree of happiness. This is a part of the fabric of life. This is the way God designed it.
Our relationships are organic. They have the capacity to grow and develop over time. Furthermore, the Apostle Paul tells us that God made us to be mutually dependent on one another (Romans 12:5). We need each other.
Phillip Zimbardo, a psychologist at Stanford made this observation:
“There is nothing more detrimental to a person’s life than isolation. There is no more destructive influence on physical and mental health than the isolation of you from me and us from them.”
David Brooks commented during a recent NPR interview:
“The shocking release of a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [says] that U.S. life expectancy has gone down for the third consecutive year. In normal countries, life expectancy goes up. The only other time it’s gone down three years in a row is 1915 to 1918 when we had World War I and the great flu pandemic. So what we’re seeing is a rise of deaths of despair – suicide, opiate addiction, alcoholic liver disease; all these things that have to do with social isolation. And that to me – that social isolation is driving a lot of our politics and a lot of our cultural malaise.”
Yet, incredibly, we trivialize human existence and human relationships with the excuse of time-demands and the pressures of work.
It strikes me that our relationship with God and our relationship with others is the essence of life. It is a foundation of happiness. However, if we know this and believe this we should do everything in our power to develop, protect and nurture all of these relationships.