Sometimes it helps to hear common sense once again: Childhood happiness is a lasting treasure.
Data from a study dating back nearly 80 years has found a link between a warm childhood home, healthy ways of managing emotions in mid-life, and secure marriages in old age.
Since the 1930s and 1940s, researchers have been tracking the lives of a large group of men, some of them sophomores at Harvard College when the study began and some from Boston’s poorest neighborhoods and troubled families, many of them living without hot and cold water. They were given medical exams, and researchers went to their homes and interviewed their parents.
Every two years, research staff call up the survivors and ask them if they’ll cooperate yet again. Now in their 90s, the men agree to interviews in their living rooms, release their medical records, give blood, and talk to their wives on videotape.
When the men reached their 80s, the researchers looked back at data from midlife to see what predicted their future health. The answer was good relationships, says Robert Waldinger, a psychiatrist, psychoanalyst, and Zen priest who currently directs the study. People who were most satisfied with their social ties at age 50 were the healthiest at 80. “People who are more socially connected to family, to friends, to community, are happier, they're physically healthier, and they live longer,” he says. “Good, close relationships seem to buffer us from some of the slings and arrows of getting old.”
Physical pain doesn’t have to affect your mood if it’s not added to emotional pain, he pointed out. Also, people with more happy social ties suffered less mental decline. The key was feeling secure. “Some of our octogenarian couples could bicker with each other day in and day out, but as long as they felt that they could really count on the other when the going got tough, those arguments didn't take a toll on their memories,” Waldinger notes.
You may need to make new ties along the way. The happiest retirees went out looking for friends to replace work ties. “Relationships are messy and they're complicated and the hard work of tending to family and friends, it's not sexy or glamorous. It's also lifelong. It never ends,” he says.
In the most recent paper to come from the study, Waldinger and his co-author Marc Schulz, a psychologist at Bryn Mawr College, found the link to childhood happiness. When the men were middle-aged, they had answered questions about how they managed unpleasant emotions. Researchers at that time had judged their strategies as more or less “adaptive.” The better strategies were humor and rethinking the situation, or “reframing.” Lashing out or bottling up emotions counted as “less adaptive.” It turned out that the men with “less adaptive” emotional styles tended to have less secure marriages later on. The next step was to analyze the data from their childhood.
If you’re raising children, this is another reminder that you’ve taken on an all-important job. None of us can go back and make our childhoods happier, but we can practice the skills that preserve relationships and health over decades.
Let’s take humor. Inside jokes build relationships. Any kind of shared humor is the best way to interrupt power struggles. If you can make a joke when you’re both tense, or actually fighting, you may both become less defensive and playful and see solutions that didn’t appear before. But your humor will backfire if you’re taking a dig, and being hostile. Mean humor only works for some comedians on stage. Contempt is a relationship-killer. Back off if a joke falls flat. Apologize if you’ve offended.
Also realize that humor can be a defense. If you’re constantly joking when other people are upset, you are using humor to keep your distance. A little self-deprecation is charming, but if you’re always putting yourself down, you are communicating low self-esteem.
“Reframing” is seeing the silver lining when things don’t go the way you’d planned. You can also reframe your perception of other people’s personalities. This list may give you some ideas. A “bossy” person is a natural leader. A “crabby” person is someone who communicates her needs. A “demanding” person is assertive. If someone feels too “dependent,” you can reframe your response by seeing her as more “connected.” “Fearful” people can be viewed as cautious and aware. If you see your own traits in a positive way, you can often stay true to yourself while changing your behavior if need be to enhance a relationship.