That question is one that Harvard researchers have been exploring for decades, as part of the longest-running scientific study of happiness. It began in 1938. That’s when scientists set out to follow a group of test subjects and their descendants across generations, hoping to unlock the secret of happiness. In that process, one ingredient emerged as more important to happiness than any other: relationships. In fact, close relationships are a bigger determinant of how happy people are than any other predictor, be it money, work, or even good health.
The Importance of Close Relationships
An April 2017 article in the Harvard Gazette summarized those findings this way: “Close relationships, more than money or fame, are what keep people happy throughout their lives … Those ties protect people from life’s discontents, help to delay mental and physical decline, and are better predictors of long and happy lives than social class, IQ, or even genes.”
Connection in an Age of Loneliness
But if close relationships are the secret to happiness, they also can seem painfully elusive at a time when rates of loneliness are higher than ever in the U.S.. More than one-third of Americans, according to another Harvard study cited by CBS News, say they’re dealing with “serious loneliness.” Meanwhile, experts point to the mental health dangers of social isolation, including rising suicide rates.
“Social Fitness”: What Is It?
What, then, is the answer for those who want to be happier? More close relationships, of course, yet how might one get there?
What Is Social Fitness?
The same Harvard study mentioned above offered a clue, by introducing a little-known concept dubbed “social fitness.” What is social fitness? It’s the exercise of our relationships, with the emphasis being on the “exercise of.” In other words, what makes people happy is staying in close touch with the people in their life and tending to the friendships that make their life meaningful.
How to Improve Your Social Fitness
Social fitness may come naturally for some people, whereas others may have to work at it.
Extroverts may have an advantage in this department, for example, but that doesn’t mean introverts are hopeless. They may just have to be more intentional in developing their relationships.
Not unlike “physical fitness,” “social fitness” may require regular practice and self-discipline, as well as changes to one’s lifestyle. The following tips can help get you started at improving your social fitness:
- Practice smiling more at strangers. This may take some courage for those who tend to be shy, but the feel-good effects are well-worth it. When you smile, your brain releases anti-stress neurochemicals like dopamine, the “pleasure” neurotransmitter, and serotonin.
- Find a regular group outlet in which to build meaningful relationships. A group that meets at the same time each week is a commitment but often easier to maintain than a last-minute meet-up. Whether you’re just looking to have fun with other like-minded people or hoping to build relationships via a support group, the options for building meaningful friendships are virtually endless.
- Incorporate more “small talk” in your day. A short check-in by phone with a dear friend can make a big difference in one’s day. So can the little exchanges with strangers at the gym, in church, or at the cash register. All those social connections, when added together, can improve social fitness, thereby increasing happiness.