Relationships can bring joy, but we also need time on our own
In this time of lockdown, when many of us have been confined with partners, families or friends, I’ve been thinking about how relationships contribute, or not, to our happiness levels.
This topic was highlighted in a famous research project, the Harvard Study of Adult Development, which in 1938 began investigating the happiness levels of more than 700 men. It is still ongoing even though many of the original participants have died.
It’s one of the longest running and most in-depth studies into what brings happiness and one of its main findings was that it’s not money or success that generate contentment, but rather close and meaningful relationships with partners, family, friends and community. The researchers found that those with such relationships lived longer, healthier and happier lives.
Intuitively, the findings ring true to me. After all, we’re social animals and it’s through our relationships with others that we develop our identity, achieve a sense of belonging and find love and meaning.
But at the same time, what if we’re not with a partner, in an unhappy relationship or don’t get on with our family? In those cases Jean-Paul Sartre’s famous quote, ‘Hell is other people’, may seem appropriate.
Even when relationships are generally good, being forced to spend a lot more time together during lockdown can often be a strain.
While loneliness is an indicator of lower levels of contentment and health, I think it’s important that we acknowledge there are many people who either don’t want to, or haven’t been successful in, finding a partner. And for many of those people who do have partners, the relationship can become limiting and unsatisfying if we become dependent and afraid of exploring new activities or doing things on our own.
I’m glad that the Harvard study mentions friends and community, as well as partners and family, because I think the value of links with our communities is sometimes underestimated when we just stick to our spouses and families.
Those people who have difficult relationships with their family, and may not have a partner, can still develop nourishing links with others through outside activities in the community. These could include a church, volunteering or hobby. Connecting online is also increasingly common, although I don’t believe this can easily substitute for face to face contact.
I believe that, as well as finding ourselves through our relationships with others, we must also learn how to be happy and at peace with ourselves. That may mean doing things alone or finding space in our lives to connect inwardly.
As French philosopher Pascal said: ‘All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.’