Blessed Be the Ties That Bind
by the Reverend Martha Horne
Every day when I open my laptop, I’m greeted by three articles brought to me by Pocket, a product of my Firefox browser that provides me “carefully curated” sources of information meant to inform and inspire me. Most days I ignore them, but occasionally, something catches my attention. How could I not click on a recent link promising me the secret to the one thing that guarantees happiness in life—especially when a Harvard study is the source of this wisdom?1
I dutifully clicked on the link and read that, contrary to popular opinion, the secret to happiness in life is neither wealth nor fame. (Nor does happiness come from a job that allows me to follow my bliss or from the deep satisfaction of removing the clutter from my house, both claims I’ve heard from other sources.) No, after nearly 80 years of a longitudinal study, Harvard researchers have determined that the secret to happiness is (drum roll…wait for it!) RELATIONSHIPS!
Relationships? Really? This is breaking news? CPG recognized this long ago. Relationships have been a major theme in the curriculum of CREDO and other Education and Wellness initiatives for many years. And yet, all too often, it’s easy for us to take for granted the personal relationships that so deeply affect our health and happiness.
I confess that I’ve not always been as attentive as I should be to the many important relationships I’ve enjoyed throughout my life. I’m a terrible Facebook friend, and although I love to receive Christmas cards and letters, I’ve been remiss in getting my own cards written and mailed. The findings of the Harvard study1 have brought me up short, however, and have strengthened my resolve to do better going forward, reconnecting with old friends and colleagues, and reaching out to new acquaintances.
I remember how easily relationships developed with little or no effort when I was a child—relationships with my family, neighbors, classmates in school, Brownie troop, and Sunday School. The same was true later, in early adulthood—relationships with my husband and our children, the parents of their friends, and colleagues at work. But now, in this season of retirement, my network of relationships is shrinking. I no longer go to work every day, as I did for many years, engaging with a vibrant seminary community of faculty, students, staff, board members, and alumni. To make matters worse, dear friends I’ve known and loved for several decades have either died or moved away.
It takes much more effort now to forge new relationships and nurture existing ones, but the return on investment is high. Robert Waldinger, a Harvard psychiatrist and director of the study, reports that “the people who sought to replace old colleagues with new friends after retiring were healthier and happier that those who left work and placed less emphasis on maintaining strong social networks.”1
The study confirms much of what we already know from our own experience. Our social relationships really do play a major role in both our health and our happiness. Over a lifetime, many relationships will come and go, ebb and flow, wax and wane. We know that our relationships are sometimes a source of pain as well as pleasure, and yet without strong social relationships, we are lonely souls, yearning for personal connections, longing to be known, and eager to love and to be loved. Not only do these relationships improve the quality of our life, but the absence of them is dangerous. As Dr. Waldinger put it, “Loneliness kills. It’s as powerful as smoking or alcoholism.”1
All this reminds me of a song from my days as a Girl Scout several decades ago: “Make new friends, but keep the old: one is silver and the other gold.” In this new year, I give thanks for the many relationships that have brought me joy in good times and sustained me through the difficult ones.
For more information and suggestions regarding relationships, see the CPG eLearning course “The Power of We: The Real Impact of Relationships.”
The Reverend Martha Horne was Dean and President of the Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria, Virginia, from 1994-2007. She has also served as President of the Association of Theological Schools in the United States and Canada, the accrediting body for more than 250 theological schools. She has been a consultant or coach for several seminary presidents and boards and has led retreats, Quiet Days, and adult forums in congregations throughout the country. Martha enjoys being part of CREDO, with its incredible network of faculty colleagues, staff, and participants.