by Gael O’Brien

How can managers (or anyone) increase their ability to thrive amid 2023’s uncertainties and business challenges? It turns out the answer may be science-based: the result of more than eight decades of longitudinal research by the Harvard Study of Adult Development. The key is the quality of your relationships – which means connecting with people you care about who care about you.

Positive relationships, from casual to close, impact thriving, according to the study. A new book based on the study’s research, The Good Life: Lessons From The World’s Longest Scientific Study of Happiness,  documents relationships’ power. The bottom line: “Good relationships keep us healthier and happier” with positive health indicators that support living longer.” What isn’t called out, but evident, is how values sustain good relationships.

The book focuses on research supporting relationships at work and all parts of life. Thriving, happiness, and well-being are used interchangeably. The evidence is that positive relationships foster well-being and thriving, reduce stress, improve health, and lengthen lives. Managers and teams benefit significantly by developing positive work connections. Understanding that thesis requires analysis of three important topics: the priorities of the Harvard study; how social fitness works; and ethics’ role as a catalyst in good relationships supporting thriving.

The Study’s Origins and Focus

Robert Waldinger, Director of the Harvard study, and Associate Director Marc Schulz, are co-authors of The Good Life. Waldinger, a part-time professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, is the fourth director since the study began in 1938. “Radical for its time,” the book explains, “the Study set out to understand human health by investigating not what made people sick, but what made them thrive.”

The Harvard researchers merged two studies into one with 724 original participants: one-third were Harvard sophomores, half on scholarships; and two-thirds were boys from Boston’s “most troubled and disadvantaged neighborhoods.” The Study was initially all men but eventually spouses, children and grandchildren were included; there are now over 2,000 participants.

The research collection is rigorous: Every two years participants receive and return lengthy questionnaires with topics including relationships, health, work, family, self-reflection, and reactions at different stages of life. Participants have indicated the questions help them gain perspective on their lives. An example: “What people and purpose do I really care about and how can I invest in them?”

Every five years, researchers receive participants’ health records, from brain scans to blood tests. that keep track of their health and well-being. In-person meetings are also scheduled. The book follows a few participants’ stories. Attitudes about relationships shaped their happiness or loneliness. It didn’t matter if a participant was an introvert because the quality of a relationship matters, not the quantity.

Key Findings

For thriving: Thriving is defined in The Good Life as “an active and constant state of becoming” that many factors contribute to including good relationships.

For health: “The strength of our connections with others can be a predictor of the health of our bodies and brains.” Friendships can reduce how we view hardship: “… and even when we do experience extreme stress, friends can diminish its impact and duration…we’re better able to manage it. Less stress and better stress management lead to less wear and tear on our bodies. Friends in short, keep us healthier.”

For grounding: “Among Harvard Study participants the happiest and most satisfied adults were those who managed to turn the question ‘What can I do for myself?’ into ‘What can I do for the world beyond me?‘”

Manager takeaways on work relationships (and beyond) from the research:

• “Relationships are the vehicle that will allow us both to improve our lives and to build things that will outlast us;”
• “Every workday is an important personal experience, and to the extent we can enrich each one with relationships, we benefit. Work, too, is life.”
• “Recognizing another person for who they are and meeting them where they are can go a long way toward deepening connection.” And
• “… understand what kind of connections help us thrive. Are we getting enough of those connections?” If not, social fitness provides steps to strengthen connections.

Social Fitness

Authors Waldinger and Schultz identify social fitness as the number one key to a happy life and say it requires nurturing: “… an investment in our social fitness…is an investment that will affect everything about how we live in the future.”

Social fitness is a counterpart to physical fitness, supporting the health of relationships. It involves taking stock of how much time we spend with others and how often we spend time with the people who help us thrive. Those who make us feel energized, according to The Good Life, “give you a sense of connection and belonging that remain after you part ways.” Positive experiences with colleagues energize managers which can help fuel their efforts with their own teams. Their impact will depend on how managers connect, care, make team members feel.

In a recent CNBC article, the book authors identify seven questions for taking stock of relationships and provide a chart from the book to fill out. I answered the questions, filled out the chart, and saw my gaps. It’s a useful way to discover your balance of support. It helps identify whether enough attention is being paid to other important relationships.

Social fitness sustains relationships by giving regular attention to connections that nurture thriving. Ethics also sustains good relationships through values, what makes a good relationship and thriving.

The Intersection of Ethics and Good Relationships

Often to its detriment, ethics becomes a silent partner, not seen or called out. What isn’t mentioned in The Good Life is that operating out of ethical values and behavior is fundamental to what makes a good relationship possible. The soul of ethics is about empowering good relationships and how people thrive.

Trust is essential in developing strong connections. A relationship at work would collapse if cheating, lying, misrepresentation, bullying, or plagiarizing occurred. Friendships can’t be meaningful without ethical behavior. If values like respect, integrity, caring, support, and keeping commitments aren’t present, the relationship isn’t thriving.

While companies often showcase their values, what makes them real is what happens in teams: how team members act and managers lead. The answer to the question of how managers can increase their ability to thrive in 2023 has two parts:

• Managers can foster a healthy team culture by reinforcing often to members the role that values play in building good relationships and the benefits that come about when trust is easier, stress reduced, and thriving increased; and

• Managers can make developing good work relationships with colleagues a priority by explaining the benefits of those relationships to teams and explaining how social fitness helps them start.

For even greater context, author Robert Waldinger has discussed the study in a 2015 TEDx talk (15 minutes) and a 2023 TED discussion (28 minutes) that help illuminate the core finding of The Good Life study: “Relationships are the foundation of our lives, intrinsic to everything we do and everything we are.”

Gael O’Brien is a catalyst in leaders leading with purpose and impact through clarity, presence and connection. She is an executive coach, culture coach, speech coach and presenter. She publishes The Week in Ethics and is also a Business Ethics Magazine columnist, on the Advisory Board of the Hoffman Center for Business Ethics at Bentley University, and a Senior Fellow at The Institute for Social Innovation at Babson College.

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