Every so often we need to take a breather from the daily drumbeat of news and market data, to remind ourselves why we expend so much effort in our info-scouting and dot-connecting duties here at PeakProsperity.com. If we don’t, it’s dangerously easy to get mired in unproductive angst directed at our corrupted financial system, our reckless monetary & fiscal policies, and our short-sighted consumption of non-renewable resources. When that happens, every day presents us with ample new opportunity to mount our soapbox for an indignant rant; and while it feels cathartic, it doesn’t create progress.

So, it’s useful to lift our heads out of the outrage du jour (for the past 2 weeks, that’s been the blatant downward price manipulation of the precious metals) and re-focus on what we’re trying to accomplish with this site.

Our mission isn’t about helping folks amass more money. Or about becoming more "green." Those may be means to our ultimate objective, but they aren’t the end goal. What we’re about is enabling prosperity.

So, what do we mean by ‘prosperity’?

Many things, really. Financial security/comfort, good physical and emotional health, purposeful work, a lifestyle sustainable with our individual and environmental means, meaningful relationships – these are all key elements within our definition of prosperity. We could perhaps even simplify this further: "to live a long, happy life" amidst the changes of the next twenty years predicted by the Crash Course.

The Terman & Grant Studies

Two of the most important research initiatives to study well-being over time were the Grant Study and Lewis Terman‘s Genetic Study of Genius.

The Grant Study followed 237 male subjects for 68 years. Terman’s work began in 1921 and is still ongoing (in fact, it’s the oldest and longest-running longitudinal study in the world).

Both studies followed their subjects over decades and made note of many attributes of their lives. This is important, as it gave the researches the ability to see what factors had statistically-relevant impact in shaping how quality of life progressed for the participants.

From the data, researchers were able to identify and quantify the influence of the behaviors and life developments most likely to improve or worsen personal well-being.

Psycho-blogger Eric Barker recently summarized the key takeaways in his post What two things do lifelong studies agree on when it comes to living a long, happy life?

One key predictive factor is having a happy childhood. For most of us, there’s little we can do about this one. We had the childhood we had. 

But for those who have regrets, coming to terms with what was (or wasn’t), either through self-reflection or structured therapy, is likely a constructive step. Accepting the past, especially one you had little control over at the time, diminishes its power to influence your behavior today (which the study shows an unhappy childhood often does, in destructive ways)

And, of course, those of us who are parents (or relatives, caretakers, mentors, neighbors, or influencers of kids) can be mindful of this insight in creating the best environment we can for our children. 

The other big finding was that supportive relationships are critical. In particular, the giving of support to others had the biggest impact on longevity and life happiness.

From Barker’s blog:

What was the Terman study’s most important recommendation for a longer life?

…connecting with and helping others is more important than obsessing over a rigorous exercise program.

Read that sentence again. It wasn’t receiving help from others, it was giving it.

Via The Longevity Project: Surprising Discoveries for Health and Long Life from the Landmark Eight-Decade Study:

We figured that if a Terman participant sincerely felt that he or she had friends and relatives to count on when having a hard time then that person would be healthier. Those who felt very loved and cared for, we predicted, would live the longest. Surprise: our prediction was wrong… Beyond social network size, the clearest benefit of social relationships came from helping others. Those who helped their friends and neighbors, advising and caring for others, tended to live to old age.

When asked to distil down the learnings of the 68-year Grant Study, its principal investigator, George Valliant declared: "Happiness is love. Full stop."

Via Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being:

Vaillant’s insight came from his seminal work on the Grant Study, an almost seventy-year (and ongoing) longitudinal investigation of the developmental trajectories of Harvard College graduates. (This study is also referred to as the Harvard Study.) In a study led by Derek Isaacowitz, we found that the capacity to love and be loved was the single strength most clearly associated with subjective well-being at age eighty.

Vaillant’s other main interest is the power of relationships. “It is social aptitude,” he writes, “not intellectual brilliance or parental social class, that leads to successful aging.” Warm connections are necessary—and if not found in a mother or father, they can come from siblings, uncles, friends, mentors. The men’s relationships at age 47, he found, predicted late-life adjustment better than any other variable, except defenses. Good sibling relationships seem especially powerful: 93 percent of the men who were thriving at age 65 had been close to a brother or sister when younger. In an interview in the March 2008 newsletter to the Grant Study subjects, Vaillant was asked, “What have you learned from the Grant Study men?” Vaillant’s response: “That the only thing that really matters in life are your relationships to other people.”

Close relationships are so important, that the single-best predictor of living to a ripe age happily depends on your answer to this question:

The Grant Study realized there was a single yes/no question that could predict whether someone would be alive and happy at age 80:

“Is there someone in your life whom you would feel comfortable phoning at four in the morning to tell your troubles to?”

Via Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being:

Is there someone in your life whom you would feel comfortable phoning at four in the morning to tell your troubles to? If your answer is yes, you will likely live longer than someone whose answer is no. For George Vaillant, the Harvard psychiatrist who discovered this fact, the master strength is the capacity to be loved. 

Cultivating Relationships

So, by now you’re hopefully asking yourself: What am I doing in my life to maintain and improve the quality of my relationships? I sure did after learning the findings of these studies.

Perhaps surprisingly, many readers of PeakProsperity.com report that creating/cultivating relationships is the area they are least far along with in their efforts to build resiliency.

Why is that? A variety of reasons, but common among them are complaints that:

  • our suburban/urban lifestyles don’t encourage neighborly relationships
  • the demands of work and life leave us simply too busy
  • the omnipresence of digital and social media are weakening our culture’s ability to form meaningful personal relationships
  • have trouble wanting to spend time with friends/spouses/partners who don’t "get it" ("it" being the big picture framework addressed in the Crash Course)
  • don’t know how to identify or plug into new groups
  • can feel awkward/intimidating to pro-actively seek out new social connections

All of these may be true to certain extents. But they aren’t insurmountable limitations.

The good news is that cultivating relationships is something that all of us can do. Sure, it takes a little courage, a pro-active approach, sometimes a thick skin, and – for sure – an investment of our time. But those are all elements under our control.

A key tactic for success is to start small. Don’t pressure yourself to head out the door and return with ten new best lifelong friends. Swing for singles at first instead of home runs: have a conversation with somebody new today. Wave to that neighbor you never talk to. Leave an apple in the mailbox for the mailman.

As the Grant Study reveals, our well-being benefits most in the giving of support. Find ways to offer support as a relationship ice-breaker: Deliver extra garden produce to your neighbors. Volunteer on a community project. Donate time or money to a church or school. Ask an elder if there’s any assistance they’d particularly appreciate. Some good other ideas were recently shared on the site in this thread.

You’ll quickly find that unexpected kindness is a universally accepted currency, with high odds of being repaid.

If you haven’t read it already, review the excellent work by SagerXX in this site’s Community Building wiki. It’s a very useful compendium of steps both large and small for developing and deepening relationships, particularly in your local area. And if inspired, consider joining our Community Building Group, in which members share reports of new best practices they’ve found "real world" success with; as well as offer emotional support to each other in the virtual world.

Maintaining Perspective

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, it’s difficult not to get consumed by the growing barrage of anxiety-producing developments we see every day in the media. Most days, I’m online at 6am and within minutes my day is already over-programmed with new tasks to react to how the world has changed since the day before. Too often I finally make time to squeeze my ‘morning’ shower in after I’ve put my girls to bed (TMI, I apologize).

If in the midst of my day, my angst-levels rise dangerously high (frustration at the blatant market manipulation, concern at society’s levels of unpreparedness – whatever the trigger), I’ll often step away from the computer and release steam by working the garden, going for a run, or filling a hole in my homestead preparations.

What I typically haven’t done at these moments is proactively think of how I can advance the quality and/or quantity of my relationships. But since reading the results of the Grant and Terman studies, that’s changing. 

I’ve started getting together, once a week for an hour, with a group of guys to play tennis. We’re all business owners, our kids go to the same schools, we care about the quality of the town we live in, and we enjoy getting a little exercise in the sun. It often feels uncomfortably inconvenient to leave the demands of this site when our tennis date hits each week, but I force myself to put the keyboard and iPhone down and before I know it, I’m blissfully unaware of the Fed, the price of gold, and the mystery glitch that plagues our servers at midnight. It really does feel that the break from everyday stress, plus strengthening my bonds with these buddies (none of whom I knew 8 months ago when I moved up to my new town), adds a few days to my life each time I do it.

In addition, I’ve gone out of my way in a manner I never did before to get involved with my daughter’s schools and sports teams, to buy from local farms and meet the farmers actually growing the food, to shop locally and introduce myself to the store owners, to share the eggs/vegetables/honey we’re producing on our property with our neighbors – in short, to be an engaged participant in my local community.

I relate all this to provide an example demonstrating that cultivating relationships is very doable. It’s not always easy, or comfortable, or convenient; but it’s definitely worth the investment. In my family’s case, we’re already more part of the fabric of our community here than we were after our previous 15 years in Silicon Valley.

Hopefully, others reading this will add their community building success stories in the Comments section below. The intent here is to inspire folks to focus a bit more on relationships than they otherwise would.

Because after all, who wouldn’t want to live a longer, happier life?