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The science of better relationships

What makes life meaningful? What constitutes a life well lived? Philosophers have pondered these questions for centuries, and now a team of researchers have set out to find the answers.

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Researchers at Harvard are conducting one of the longest studies on adult development ever undertaken. The 75-year study seeks to investigate what keeps people happy and healthy over the course of their lifetime. The lives of 724 men were tracked from the time they were teenagers through old age. They were asked questions about health, work and personal life to gain insight into factors that support wellbeing and protect against pain and disability in later life. The data resulted in many interesting insights, but the clearest message from the 75-year study was that good relationships keep us happier and healthier. They found that people who are more socially connected to family, friends and community were happier, healthier, and lived longer lives than those who were less well connected. People reporting feelings of loneliness were found to be less happy, their health and cognitive functioning declined more quickly in old age, and they lived shorter lives. While some of that might seem obvious, the researchers also discovered that relationship quality matters. They found an association between high conflict marriages and poor health outcomes; people who were most satisfied in their relationships at age 50 were the healthiest at age 80.

But how can we nourish our relationships? Active listening? Stashing your phone in your pocket? Meditating? A growing body of scientific literature suggests a relationship between practicing meditation and improved relationship satisfaction. In one such study, researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill assigned relatively happy, non-distressed couples to either 8-weeks of mindfulness training or to a control group who completed the same questionnaires, but did not receive mindfulness training. After the 8-week intervention, couples in the mindfulness group reported feeling more connected, accepting of one another and generally more satisfied with their relationships than those in the control group. Another study supported these findings by showing that mindfulness improved communication quality in romantic relationships, particularly during stressful conversations. Mindfulness can also benefit familial relationships. In yet another study, parents of children with developmental disabilities generally experienced more satisfaction with their parenting, greater social interactions with their children, and less parenting stress following their participation in a mindfulness course. Parents also reported improved social skills amongst their children and greater interactions between siblings.   As researchers continue to investigate the benefits of mindfulness in relationships, you can also try for yourself. Taking 10 minutes for yourself might be the best ten minutes you can give to everyone else, too.

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