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What the Largest Study on Human Happiness Teaches Us

This text was written by a TecMundo columnist; find out more at the end.

“Quality social relationships are the most important factor for human well-being. Good relationships keep us happier and healthier, period.” This is the speech that ends one of the most viewed TED talks of all time. The speaker is Robert Waldinger, current director of the longest study on human happiness ever carried out.

Let's understand how this study was carried out and how its results can contribute to building a much-desired habit: doing physical exercise.

The study and the book

The book “A good life” (The good life), launched in 2022 by two study directors, tells real stories from participants in the longest longitudinal study of human life – The Harvard Study of Adult Development, which seeks to answer the question: What makes us happy in life?

Good relationships keep us happier and healthier, according to the Harvard study.Source: Getty Images

The study began in 1938 involving 724 first-generation participants: 268 young men from Harvard and 456 young men from suburban Boston. There have been 85 years of research and today the children (around 1300 people) of the original participants are the target of investigations into their lives, especially their physical and mental health.

They answer questionnaires every 2 years about their health, quality of marriage, work and career, aging and several other aspects. Every 5 years, some health data is collected and every 10 years an in-depth interview is carried out. The main result of the follow-up study is that Good relationships keep us happier, healthier and help us live longer.

Analogy with exercises

Just as we have physical fitness, in which we need to exercise to maintain and improve our body physique, such as gaining strength when lifting weights in the gym, the authors emphasize the importance of social fitness, and she needs effort to maintain healthy social relationships.

An interesting concept covered in the book is radical curiosity and you can apply this to your life. Basically, it's reversing the social situation we have with some close people, when we've lived alongside them for years and lost our curiosity about them, because we think we already know them enough.

In fact, when we've been together for five, ten, twenty years, we know much less what the other person feels. Reawakening curiosity about people's lives is a form of social skill. Relationships can make us happier and also help with a very important behavior: physical activity.

Understand how important relationships are for physical activity

For a healthy habit such as physical activity, an important aspect has been make exercise a social activity. Unlike what social networks impose on us, with the phrase “shut your face and train”, exercise is a daily opportunity to socialize.

Social bonds are a basic psychological need of human beings. In a survey of gyms in Korea, they were the strongest predictors that kept people exercising in the first three months, a period generally characterized by dropouts.

Making exercise a social activity seems like a good strategy to keep you in your routine.Making exercise a social activity seems like a good strategy to keep you in your routine.Source: Getty Images

Looks like Connecting socially is a good way to help build an exercise habit. It is natural for our species to socialize and belong.

Feelings of support and connection from the social environment and belonging to other people are part of our origin and evolution.

Another study showed the power of a sense of community, with 96% adherence to exercises in a CrossFit box, a success that is related to the construction of four key elements:

  • Affiliation: feeling of belonging or personal relationship with other people in the group;
  • Influence: feeling that you are important and/or can make a difference within the group;
  • Integration and fulfillment of needs: feeling that your needs will be met by group participation;
  • Shared emotional connection: commitment and belief in sharing similarities and experiences over time.

In addition to making exercise a more enjoyable activity, as there is pleasure derived from the company of people we like, social support can manifest itself emotionally, through encouragement, incentives and pride; instrumentally, such as logistics (transportation to the exercise location – a ride) and informationally, such as teaching and instructions between people.

Invite a friend or family member to exercise together or Joining an exercise group can be beneficial for your health in at least two areas: relationships and body movement. Together, these behaviors have the potential for a happier, more fulfilling life.

A simple, effective and scientific measure to encourage the habit of exercising is to make it a social activity. Human connection through social relationships is key to health and well-being, physical exercise is a valuable opportunity for this. Enjoy.

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Fábio Dominski
He has a PhD in Human Movement Sciences and a degree in Physical Education from the State University of Santa Catarina (UDESC). He is a university professor and researcher at the Sports and Exercise Psychology Laboratory (LAPE / UDESC). He promotes science on social media and in a podcast available on Spotify. Author of the book Physical Exercise and Science – Facts and Myths.

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