How Relationship Satisfaction Affects Your Health
How Relationship Satisfaction Affects Your Health

Natural Health   /   Jan 22nd, 2024   /   0 COMMENTS   /  A+ | a-

This blog post was written by Victoria L. Freeman, Ph.D., CHFS, CMH, CBC.


“There isn’t time - so brief is life - for bickerings, apologies, heartburnings, callings to account. There is only time for loving, and but an instant, so to speak, for that.” ~ Mark Twain


What single factor is most important in supporting a long, healthy life? As holistic health practitioners, we need to know. What health investment should we discuss with our clients that will yield the biggest return: diet, exercise, or supplements? While all those factors are deeply important, there is something even more meaningful and likely to boost health and life satisfaction. If you ask young people today about their life goals, you often hear things like "make a lot of money" or "become famous." But are those goals truly meaningful? At the end of life, if you ask people what mattered most, you get a very different answer: relationships. People virtually never say, “I wish I’d worked more,” or “I wish I’d made more money.” Rather, most people say, “I wish I’d spent more time with my family and friends.” 


Now, we’re seeing this heartfelt perspective borne out in scientific research. In 1938, Harvard University began the longest-known study on human happiness and well-being, the Harvard Study on Adult Development. Subjects included 19-year-old Harvard sophomores as well as teenagers from the poorest neighborhoods in Boston. The 724 original subjects were all male, and over their lifetimes, they ventured into all walks of life: lawyers, doctors, businessmen, bricklayers, and, in a notable case, one Harvard student named John F. Kennedy became president of the United States.1 Over the decades, researchers have added females. The study now totals more than 2,000 people, including the children of the original subjects, as most of the original participants are deceased. For more than 85 years (and it’s still going!), researchers have performed interviews and medical tests every two years with the subjects to assess their health and well-being.6 Dr. Robert Waldinger, Harvard psychiatrist, Zen priest, and psychoanalyst, is the fourth director of the study. In his acclaimed TED talk about this research, he reported three powerful lessons learned from this study on health and happiness.6


1.  Social connections improve healthy longevity, and loneliness kills. People who are more socially connected to family, friends, and community are happier, physically healthier, and live longer than people who are less well connected. Conversely, the experience of loneliness turns out to be toxic. People who are more isolated than they want to be from others are less happy, their overall health and brain decline earlier in life, and they live shorter lives than people who are not lonely.


2.  Having higher-quality relationships is more important than the number of connections. Living in conflict is very bad for your health. Living in high-conflict marriages, for example, is profoundly detrimental to health, perhaps even worse than getting divorced. On the other hand, living amid high-quality, warm relationships is protective. The people in the study who were the most satisfied in their relationships at age 50 were the healthiest at age 80. Relationship satisfaction was even more predictive of health in old age than physical health parameters such as cholesterol levels or blood pressure. Subjects reported that good relationships even buffered them from the difficulties of getting old, such as chronic pain. Note that the quality of relationships matters across the board, not the quantity. Introverts, for example, may not need or even want many close connections, while extroverts can thrive in a larger network of numerous meaningful friends.


3.  Having good relationships is not only good for our bodies but also our brains. For those subjects in their 80s, being in a securely attached relationship with another person – i.e., having someone they knew they could count on – kept their brains healthier longer than those in relationships where they weren’t sure they could depend on another person. People in weaker relationships experienced memory decline earlier in life. It’s important to note that the secure relationships didn’t have to be smooth all the time to be protective. People can disagree and argue, but the key to a relationship being protective into old age is when both people know they can depend on the other person in an emergency or when the going gets tough.


So, if you’re trying to discern where to invest your time for the biggest health payoff, choose relationships. Spouses, children, friends, community connections – they all matter. While we can’t go back to change past priorities, we can learn from this research and apply these lessons to our current and future lives.


How Do Relationships Make Us Healthier?


To some, it may seem odd that the status of our emotional relationships affects our health so deeply, but not so for holistic health practitioners. We know the inextricable synergy between mind, body, and spirit. Still, the mechanism of that interaction is helpful to understand. The Harvard study’s researchers proposed many theories as to how good relationships improve health, but so far, the mechanism with the most merit is the minimization of stress. Challenging and stressful things will happen in life, but then what? How do we handle it? Stress sends all of us into fight-or-flight mode, but what do you do when you feel that increased heart rate and elevated blood pressure? If you have healthy, close relationships, you can talk it out with a friend or partner and literally feel your body calm down. But if you don’t have someone to help you diffuse, you tend to stay in the fight-or-flight mode much longer; this means higher levels of stress hormones circulating and higher levels of inflammation that eventually wear down multiple body systems, reports Waldinger.5


According to Shawn Stevenson, author of Eat Smarter: Use the Power of Food to Reboot Your Metabolism, Upgrade Your Brain, and Transform Your Life, another application of the Harvard study is that emotional relationships also affect our long-term health by influencing health choices such as the food we eat.3 As holistic health practitioners, we know the tremendous impact our food choices have on our health. But educating people on the “what” and “why” of making healthy food choices only goes so far in influencing the final selection of what goes in our mouths. Those foundational aspects of making healthy food choices are important, but in too many cases, they aren’t enough. While there’s no shortage of information available on what constitutes healthy nutrition and why we need it, “recent estimates show that diet-related chronic diseases cost the U.S. economy a staggering $1 trillion each year.”2 A study performed by the American Heart Association shows the cost of cardiovascular disease alone will exceed $1.1 trillion within the next few years if left unchecked.2 Clearly, a problem of this magnitude isn’t resolved just by telling people how and why to eat healthier.


You may be thinking you’re making food choices according to your own free will, and you may be. “But research indicates that what you eat is heavily influenced by how you eat, and more interestingly, with whom you’re eating.”3 Much research has shown that the simple choice of eating with your family influences the outcome of food choices. For example, people who consistently eat dinner together with family members consume more fruits and vegetables and less soda and processed foods than those who eat alone.2 This is a profoundly meaningful finding for families with children or even for adults who tend to work late and miss family meals.


Deeper data analysis revealed that the increased frequency of family dinners was also associated with higher intakes of key nutrients that support health and ward off disease, such as fiber, iron, B vitamins, vitamin C, and vitamin E. Eating with family members also resulted in a lower glycemic load and a lower intake of trans fats (both likely from consuming less processed or junk food).2 What constitutes “family” can vary, of course, and if those with whom you’re associating have poor food habits, those can rub off on you, too. 


In our fast-paced world, it’s impractical to think we can eat all our meals under the direct positive influence of family or friends. That’s okay, though. Researchers say that to have real nutritional health benefits from those we’re close to, you need to eat together at least three meals per week.2 That’s more doable. It seems our relationships greatly impact our health in more ways than one. 


Strategies for Building Healthy Relationships


So, what can we do to bolster our relationships? Waldinger calls the ability to build healthy relationships “social fitness.”5 Analogous to “physical fitness,” social fitness is a practice. Our social circle is a living, breathing system just like our bodies, and it also requires maintenance. One way to work on social fitness is through little actions with those you already know. Who do you miss right now? Who would you like to see more? Who haven’t you talked to in a while? Call them, email them, do a Zoom call, or even just text them. You may be surprised at the big results that come from a small action like that. 


Waldinger suggests another option is to widen your social connections by doing something that really matters to you alongside other people.5 For example, how about joining a sports league, a yoga or Pilates class, a gardening club, a knitting group, a vintage car club, a book club, or a political campaign? When you do something you care about in a group, you already have things in common with those people, so the chance for a meaningful connection is elevated. Just strike up a casual conversation and see where it leads. 


Replace screen time with people time. Especially since the pandemic, people have been spending more time on computers and smartphones. Yet John Tarrant, a Zen teacher, once said, “Attention is the most basic form of love; through it we bless and are blessed.”4 Waldinger agrees and adds that while our undivided attention is the most valuable thing we have to give each other, it is also the most difficult thing since ubiquitous screens inherently work to separate us.1 The trend is toward increasing social isolation, but we can counter that by intentionally structuring our lives at work and home to encourage more face-to-face connection.


Liven up a long-term relationship by doing something new together. Whether it’s an intimate partnership or a friendship, relationships can get stagnant when routines and habits set in. It doesn’t have to be that way, though. Growth can keep a relationship alive and thriving. Learn something new together, take a vacation somewhere neither of you has ever been, or take up a new hobby together.6


Finally, Waldinger says that even in the transition from one season of life to another, we must double down on the investment we make in those that matter to us. Friendships can fade for many reasons, but when they do, make the effort to plug in new ones. For example, retirement is a big life transition, and from the Harvard study, we know that people who are the happiest and healthiest in retirement are those who actively strive to replace workmates with new playmates.6


No one is always happy, no relationship is flawless, and no one journeys through life with a string of perfect priorities. We all make decisions we wish we could do over again, and we all go through tough challenges. The takeaway is that social fitness enables us to create a safety net to manage stress, make healthier choices, and be better equipped to weather the hard times. 


To learn more about social fitness and how to cultivate it in your life and the lives of those you value, check into Trinity’s Certified Natural Health Professional program, where we emphasize the importance of relationships in health and longevity. To speak with an Enrollment Specialist, call 800-428-0408, option 2.



1.    O'Connor, A. (2016). The Secrets to a Happy Life, from a Harvard Study. The New York Times. Downloaded November 15, 2023,

2.    Stevenson, S. (2020). Eat Smarter: Use the Power of Food to Reboot Your Metabolism, Upgrade Your Brain, and Transform Your Life. Little, Brown Spark. Hachette Book Group: New York, NY.

3.    Stevenson, S. (2023). A Simple Way to Fix Your Diet & Lifestyle to Live Longer & Healthier. Mark Hyman, MD YouTube Channel. Downloaded November 5, 2023,

4.    Tarrant, J. (n.d.). GoodReads Quotes. Downloaded November 10, 2023,

5.    Waldinger, R. (2023). The Secret to a Happy Life – Lessons from 8 Decades of Research. TED. Downloaded November 15, 2023,

6.    Waldinger, R. (2016). What Makes a Good Life: Lessons from the Longest Study on Happiness. TED Talk. Downloaded November 5, 2023,




Victoria L. Freeman, Ph.D., CHFS, CMH, CBC, has traveled a long and winding professional road that includes working as a teenage fine artist, later a personal trainer and wellness coach, a college professor and administrator in exercise science and education, a freelance natural health and fitness writer for national magazines, a property manager and interior designer for vacation and executive rental properties and most recently returning to the natural health arena while attending Trinity School of Natural Health to become a Certified Holistic Fitness Specialist, a Certified Master Herbalist, and a Certified Biblical Coach.

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