Relationships, Longevity, and Happiness

Although not an official holiday, the third Monday in February has been declared by five provinces in Canada an annual holiday to celebrate the family. It is known as Family Day. If not relationships, what is family? 

A Harvard study, the world’s longest study of adult development, examined the connection between relationships, longevity, and happiness.  In this link, study director Robert Waldinger provides the data-backed answer to what makes people live happier and longer lives. 

It turns out that there is a common factor. “The people who were healthiest as they aged, the people who lived the longest, were the people who had the warmest connections with others. In fact, good relationships were the strongest predictor of who was going to be happy and healthy as they grew old.”  One might expect that good relationships would bring happiness. But good health?

Given the outcome of this fascinating 85 year-long study, it is tempting to ask:

• In our society, women have a longer life expectancy than men. Might one factor be that they tend to be better at forming lasting relationships? 

• Being married was associated with a 15% overall lower risk of death from all causes. Relationships?

• A Pew research study provides evidence that religiously active people tend to be happier. Relationships?

Back to Family Day and family relationships. Scripture gives specific and helpful instruction on relationships in the family. When a new family unit is established, “a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). This does not imply a break in the relationship with mother and father. It does, however, demand a switch in allegiance. The new family unit is now the priority, the focus. Not mother! Not father!  Mother and father, too, are addressed by this scripture. They are instructed to accept this new relationship, to recognize and to respect it. Warm relationships do not prosper and flourish in the rocky soil of interference.

 And then, for the new family unit, Scripture has this to say. “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right” (Ephesians 6:1).  I see in this not just a responsibility for children but for parents. Is there a better place to teach obedience and respect than by demonstrating these qualities in the home? Personally demonstrating respect? Exemplifying obedience to law and to God? Raising law-abiding children? Raising children obedient to God? Obedience not out of fear but out of love? And so, God’s Word reminds fathers, “Do not provoke your children to wrath” (Ephesians 6:4). “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her” (Ephesians 5:25-33). That speaks to sacrificial love, unconditional love! “And let the wife see that she respects her husband” (Ephesians 6:33). Family relationships.

But warm relationships go beyond the family. “Pursue peace with all people” (Hebrews 12:14). Not to leave us guessing how to achieve warm relationships with others, Scripture is literally brimming with specific instruction. It speaks of forgiving as Christ forgave us. It speaks of seeking forgiveness and of reconciliation and of restitution. It speaks to anger management and humility. There is not a situation in relationships on which the Bible does not instruct.

Is the clamor for health and happiness not a universal pursuit? What a variety of avenues are engaged to achieve good health and happiness! Not all lead to the desired outcome. The Harvard study, the world’s longest study of human behavior, concluded that good relationships are the strongest predictor of who was going to be happy and healthy as they grew old. When I became aware of this study, it was the impetus for me to put “pen to paper” to thank family and close relatives on Family Day for the role they play in my happiness.

There is an often-overlooked relationship that deserves further attention and that relates to Christians. The Pew research study, cited earlier, provides evidence that religiously active people tend to be happier. Some Christians speak of a personal relationship with God. Does that, plus their relationship with other believers in church, explain why religiously active people tend to be happier?

In the year 2019, I found myself on the operating table for open-heart surgery, not one bypass, not two, not four, but six bypasses. For me and for everyone around me, it was completely unexpected. Before this valley (simultaneously mountain top), never had I experienced such comfort, such peace, such support flowing from warm relationships with family, with fellow believers, and above all with my heavenly Father. 

Already in the first few pages of the Bible, in the account of creation, we read how God was in the habit of coming down in the cool of the day (Genesis 3:8) to commune with man, seeking a relationship. Just as then, God still seeks a personal relationship with His creation. With you. With me. Today! 

That personal relationship which God sought with His creation was destroyed by sin, with all its ugly consequences (Genesis 3:1-19), and none of us escaped the consequences, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).  But 1 John 1:9 guides us like a GPS to the restoration of that personal relationship with Him: “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

King David expresses his relationship with God and with fellow believers this way: “For a day in Your courts is better than a thousand” (Psalm 84:10). A modern Bible paraphrase, The Message, attempts to put this quote into a modern context: “One day spent in your house, this beautiful place of worship, beats thousands spent on Greek island beaches.”

Warm relationships don’t just happen. Relationships are built. God grant that the relationships we build among family, our neighbors, with fellow believers, and with our loving God are warm, abundant, and intentional.

Hardy Sonnenberg

Hamilton, Ontario




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