For over 80 years, researchers at Harvard have studied what makes for a good life. They found one surefire, scientifically proven predictor of happiness: developing warmer relationships.
A team of reporters on The Times’s health and wellness desk, Well, developed a seven-day challenge to help you do just that. I spoke with Jancee Dunn, one of the reporters behind the program, about what she found when she tried it.
Lauren: When I see a “New Year’s challenge,” I immediately feel tired. What is different about this one?
Jancee: This isn’t a boot camp, and it isn’t a sugar challenge, both of which would be very hard for me to do. It’s a relationship challenge that will help you address and improve different parts of your social universe with seven science-backed exercises. More than that, it’s a way to think about your connections and what sustains you.
How did you get the idea for this?
Many of us on the Well desk had read “The Good Life” by Dr. Robert Waldinger, and we loved this book. It’s about the Harvard Study of Adult Development, which started during the Depression. For generations, researchers have followed families from different socioeconomic backgrounds, asking them incredibly detailed questions and giving them medical exams.
And what did the study find?
What emerged is that a crucial element of happiness is relationships.
If you’re going to make one single decision that would ensure your own health and happiness, the science tells us that it should be to cultivate warm relationships of all kinds. It’s not just about having a partner. It’s in every realm of your life. So we worked with Dr. Waldinger to craft exercises to help people cultivate more happiness in their relationships.
One of the challenges is an the invitation to write a “eulogy for the living,” or to tell someone why you’re grateful for them right now. Have you tried it?
I did this once with my fourth-grade teacher, Roseann Manley. She wrote on my report card, “Jancee is a very talented writer, and I think she’s going to be a famous writer someday.” And I’m not a famous writer, but I remember reading that and thinking, “Oh, she sees something in me.” And it changed the course of my life.
So I tracked Ms. Manley down, all these years later. And I told her how grateful I was. And we’ve now exchanged dozens and dozens of letters. She’s 91, widowed and doesn’t have kids. I call her every Christmas. She sends me letters with puppies and kittens on the stationery. She’s become my substitute grandmother. It’s been a wonderful thing.
Another challenge encourages talking to strangers. You’re a reporter — what are your tips for starting those conversations?
My standard line for people with babies and dogs is, “What’s it like to be ignored by everybody because your baby-slash-dog is so cute?” Hundred percent success rate.
Or, if someone looks like they could use a little support, you could say, “How’s your day been?” When you say, “How are you?” people feel compelled to say, “Fine,” and that’s the end of it. An open-ended question is good.
Asking these questions can feel uncomfortable, and you risk rejection. But it can have maximum reward for truly minimal effort. And what’s better than that?
Do you have advice for readers who might be interested in trying to make changes like these, but put off actually doing them?
Research shows that a lot of people think, “Oh, I’m going to be happy in the future when I get that job I want, when I get the money or when I retire and I have more time.” But the idea of a time surplus is a fallacy. You can do something small and actionable today.
Sign up for Well’s seven-day challenge here. You’ll receive a new email each day, beginning tomorrow, with a quiz to assess the state of your relationships.
Related: Create a workout routine in 2023 out of what you enjoy most.
War in Ukraine
Other Big Stories
Big strides in solar power capacity and other technologies are part of why this might be the best time to be alive, Nicholas Kristof argues.
Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s pledge to save the Amazon will be the defining issue of his presidency in Brazil, Heriberto Araujo writes.
Southwest Airlines’ need to modernize its scheduling systems has been an open (and shameful) secret within the company for some time, Zeynep Tufekci says.
The Sunday question: How will history remember 2022?
The past 12 months will be remembered as a “hinge year in history,” like 1940, in which the world confronted the threat of authoritarianism, Bret Stephens writes for The Times. Or it may not be remembered at all, Joachim Klement argues on Substack.
On the cover: Kendrick Lamar’s new chapter.
Talk: An A.I. pioneer on what we should really fear.
Ethicist: “My partner’s parents stay with us every weekend. Do I get a say?”
Eat: Make the new year better with dumplings.
Read the full issue.
THE WEEK AHEAD
What to Watch For
Today is New Year’s Day. Financial markets will be closed tomorrow, the observed federal holiday.
Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva will be sworn in as president of Brazil today.
Oregon becomes the first state today to allow adult use of hallucinogenic mushrooms.
The Rose, Cotton and Citrus college football bowl games will be played tomorrow.
Pelé’s body will lie at midfield at a stadium in Santos, Brazil, starting tomorrow before a private burial on Tuesday.
The 118th U.S. Congress convenes on Tuesday.
The suspect arrested last week in the stabbing deaths of four Idaho students will appear at an extradition hearing in Pennsylvania on Tuesday.
Rick Singer, the mastermind of the Varsity Blues college admissions scandal, is to be sentenced in federal court on Wednesday.
Benedict’s funeral will be held on Thursday in St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City.
CES, the major annual consumer electronics trade show, opens on Thursday.
What to Cook This Week