Several years ago, my dad and I visited a friend who had been a highschool teacher and was like a mentor to my older brother and me. We visited him that evening wanting to talk to him about our religion – not to force it on him, but simply hoping that our belief system would help him through the tough times as it had done for us. I guess we were worried about him, because his wife had died in a car accident. He was very welcoming and we had a good and deep discussion. In the end, though, I think that I learned more from him than he did from us. He told us something that I will never forget. He said, “I have come to realize that the purpose of life is relationships.”
I had never thought about it that way before. Relationships bring fulfillment. Relationships bring happiness. Relationships with other people – and with God – give our lives meaning; they give us motivation to keep living and learning and growing even when tragedies happen. It wasn’t until after that conversation that I realized that everything our religion teaches is really meant to strengthen relationships, as it turns out.
It was around 2005 when my dad and I had that discussion with our friend. Ten years later, the TED organization published a video showing Harvard Medical School’s Dr. Robert Waldinger as he presents strikingly similar ideas about the importance of relationships in our lives. He doesn’t say that relationships are the purpose of life, per se, but he does tell us that good relationships are what keep us happy and healthy as human beings. And his claim is based on a 75-year longitudinal study with 724 participants. It is an impressive presentation, and it’s less than 13 minutes long. I highly recommend watching it.
Other research has shown similar results, although the focus tends to be more on what makes people physically healthy rather than what brings long-term happiness. Just two days ago, for example, a news article came out about a study from University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill showing a correlation between social connectedness and physical health in all stages of life.
The idea that relationships are important to our health and well-being might be old news to many. As Dr. Waldinger put it, “this is wisdom that’s as old as the hills”. The take-away message of this, then, isn’t likely Earth-shattering. But it is, hopefully, encouraging. To me, the take away message is simply the reminder that relationships with family and friends are worth our effort. Even though relationships sometimes take a lot of patience, even though they are not completely in our control, and even though we don’t get any rewards or societal recognition for doing our part, relationships are worth it. They are our greatest potential for happiness – individually and collectively. And at the end of the day, what could be more worth it than that?