“Virtual offerings will never replace in-person programs.”
“People will return to gyms for the social aspects.”
“Humans crave connection.”
Phrases like this have been said over and over as the industry has navigated the pandemic. Fitness facility operators have preached humans need to interact with one another, but do we really know why?
According to Psychology Today, humans — because of necessity — evolved into social beings. Dependence and cooperation with each other has enhanced our ability to survive under harsh environmental circumstances. While survival threats have lessened over time, people continue to have a need to affiliate with others.
Industry leaders are correct: humans do crave connection. However, they often don’t realize socialization has a powerful influence on our health. While that’s an easy statement to make, there is actual scientific data that proves the impact of loneliness.
The Harvard Study of Adult Development
In 1938, scientists began tracking the health of two groups of men — 268 sophomores at Harvard University and 456 ages 11 to 16 from Boston’s poorest neighborhoods — beginning the start of the Harvard Study of Adult Development. In the midst of the Great Depression, they hoped the longitudinal study would reveal clues as to how humans can lead healthy and happy lives.
Researchers learn about the participants in different ways:
- Questionnaires: Every two years, both groups complete questionnaires asking about their physical and mental health, marital quality, career or retirement enjoyment and many other aspects of their lives.
- Health Information: Every five years, health information is collected from the men and their physicians to assess their physical health.
- Interviews: Many of the men from both groups have been interviewed at different intervals over the years to document more in-depth information about their relationships, their careers and adjustment to aging.
Robert Waldinger, the fourth director of this study, said in his TEDTalk that research studies of this magnitude are extremely rare due to a multitude of factors such as participants dropping out, researchers dying or lack of funding. But the Harvard Study of Adult Development survived. In 2015, 60 of the original 724 men were still alive and actively participating in the study. In the same year, researchers opened the study up to more than 2,000 children of the original participants.
As the participants aged from teenagers to men in their eighties, they all went into different walks of life. Some became factory workers, doctors, lawyers and bricklayers. There was even one President of the United States — John F. Kennedy. Waldinger said, over time, some developed alcoholism, some climbed corporate ladders all the way to the top, and some came crashing down in the opposite direction.
While the study itself is impressive, you may be thinking what does this have to do with socialization?
After 75-plus years and thousands of pages of research, one clear message is that good relationships keep us happier and healthier while loneliness is deadly.
In his talk, Waldinger said there are three significant lessons from the study:
- Loneliness kills. At any given time, one in five Americans report they’re lonely. Isolation is toxic. There are greater physical declines in lonely people, and brain functioning can decline earlier.
- It’s the quality of our relationships that matter. “Living in the midst of good, warm relationships is protective,” said Waldinger in his talk. “Once we had followed our men all the way into their eighties, we wanted to look back at them at midlife to see if we could predict who was going to grow into a happy, healthy octogenarian and who wasn’t. When we gathered everything we knew about them, at age 50 it wasn’t their middle age cholesterol levels that predicted how they were going to grow old. It was how satisfied they were in their relationships. Those who were the most satisfied in their relationships at age 50 were the healthiest at age 80.
- Good relationships don’t just protect our bodies, they protect our brains. “It turns out being in a securely attached relationship to another person in your eighties is protective,” explained Waldinger. “The people who are in relationships where they feel they can count on the other person in times of need — those people’s memories stay sharper longer.”
Lastly, Waldinger said over the 75 years, the study has shown that the people who fared the best were the people who leaned into relationships with family, friends and community.
So, what does this mean for your rec center and loneliness?
In a time where the campus recreation industry is shifting to a more holistic approach and prioritizing well-being, you can use this study’s finding on loneliness and socialization to host social events, proving yet again the importance of your department. Hosting a social event at your rec center helps students meet new friends. You can send the TEDTalk out to your members or staff in your next email. Or, host a “Bring a Buddy Day” so students, staff and faculty can work out with those they are closest with.
Knowing what you do now about the study, you can also take a look at yourself. How are your relationships? Do you have people in your corner you can rely on? Try replacing screen time with a night out with friends. Take a vacation day and spend time with your family.
The Harvard study set out to find what leads to a healthy and happy life. We have the answers. How will you apply it to your life now?