The Importance of Deep Relationships

Can virtual bonds have the same kind of depth and intimacy as real-life ones?

In one of the most thorough and prolonged behavioral studies ever conducted, Harvard University researchers surveyed and scrutinized a group of 724 men from 1939 to 2014, arriving at a simple yet instructive conclusion. Harvard professor Robert Waldinger, director of the center conducting the study, described it this way: “Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period.”

The single factor that more than any other determined how happy and healthy these men were throughout their lives was the presence of good relationships. Not where they lived, not what they did, not how smart they were, and not how much money they had made.

What are good relationships, though? Waldinger explains: “It’s not just the number of friends you have, and it’s not whether or not you’re in a committed relationship. It’s the quality of your close relationships that matters.” In other words, how many close relationships we have and who these relationships are with does not matter for our health and happiness. It turns out that we can enjoy the remarkable benefits of an intimate and supportive relationship to an equal degree with a romantic partner, family members, friends, or colleagues.

The importance of relationships is evident in numerous other studies. Globally, there is an increasing amount of research focusing on well-being on a national level. More and more countries are beginning to look at Gross National Happiness (GNH) as a measure of national health, in addition to Gross National Product (GNP).

Some of the countries that consistently appear high on the international rankings—”the happiest countries in the world”—are Denmark, Norway, Colombia, Israel, and Australia. Why these nations and not others? Why do Israel and Colombia, with their fair share of challenges, boast high levels of well-being, whereas countries like the U.S., Germany, and Singapore do not? When researchers asked this question, they came up with one clear answer: People living in the happiest countries enjoy high levels of social support. This support can be the result of strong family bonds, intimate friendships, or a sense of communal solidarity. In the happiest countries, there is an emphasis on relationships.

How can we cultivate these close relationships? Whenever I was asked this question, up until three months ago, I highlighted the distinction between virtual and real and encouraged everyone to get off social media and go out and meet people. Today, things are different, and many of us no longer have the luxury of choosing between the virtual and the real. We’re locked up in our homes, forced to keep our distance, subject to physical isolation.

In this new world, we have to relinquish old distinctions that no longer serve us and come up with new ones that do. Specifically, instead of thinking about virtual versus real, we have to think about superficial versus deep.

And deep relationships are possible, even in virtual reality.

Personally, I felt tremendous disappointment when classes at Columbia University, where I teach, shifted online. It had taken me over a month—and a handful of two-hour sessions—to feel like my class on Happiness Studies had taken the magical shift I so crave when teaching, from superficial academic discussions to deep psychological conversations. When we went online, I feared this magic would be lost.

To my surprise, however, within a couple of sessions, the screen ceased to be a barrier to intimacy. The first steps in this new virtual territory were precarious, but as soon as one student and then another took the leap and shared what was on their minds and in their hearts, others provided support and then themselves followed into the deep. Last week, in the penultimate class of the semester, I shed a few tears—because I was touched by students opening up and because our time together is almost over. While I would much rather go back to face-to-face interactions with my students and friends, we discovered during this period that intimacy and depth are possible online.

In a world that has lost much of its old structures—where boundaries between work and home, and space and in time, are crumbling—we need to establish some new structures. And perhaps the most important structure is setting time aside each day for deep, meaningful, heartfelt conversations.

If we do that, then as soon as the threat of the coronavirus subsides, and the walls currently separating us fall, we’ll be able to build on the foundation that we are creating now and enjoy the marvelous benefits that come from close relationships that are both deep and real.

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