When I ask people who are in their retirement, what their wishes are for 20 years hence, they often tell me with a chuckle that they hope they are still alive. Then they say their first wish is to be healthy. The next wish is usually to have a happy relationship with their spouse who is also alive – and healthy. Their third wish is usually about enjoying their adult children and grandchildren. Loving relationships with family really matter. It is likely that most of us will be healthy into our 80s, 90s and even 100s, given current life expectancy trends. Happy relationships and good health often seem to occur together. All the research shows that the medically healthiest in old age are those whose marriage and other close relationships are strong and satisfying.
In his book Aging Well, Dr. George E. Vaillant describes the findings of longitudinal studies identifying the factors that contribute to happiness in later life. In the longest study of aging in the world called the Study of Adult Development, three different cohorts of 824 individuals born in the 1920s and 1930s, were selected as teenagers and followed through until their deaths. The sample was of white men born into wealthy families, white men born into poverty and women of white middle class backgrounds. All participants in the studies were interviewed every 2 to 4 years about their social lives, health, mental health, family life, financial success and happiness over their entire lives, over six to eight decades until their deaths.
It was expected that factors like genetic predisposition, childhood family wealth or poverty and intelligence would predict later life good health and happiness. The six variables that did not predict later life health and happiness were ancestral longevity, cholesterol levels, stress, parental characteristics, childhood temperament, ease in social relationships. The seven variables that did predict were adaptive coping style, absence of alcohol abuse, healthy weight, a stable marriage, some exercise, and number of years in school.
Vaillant reports the following significant findings:
- It is not the bad things that happen to us that doom us. It is the good people who we surround ourselves with at any age that help us enjoy life into old age.
- The capacity for gratitude and for forgiveness helps heal relationships, making them last, leading to a happier later life.
- A good marriage at age 50 predicted positive aging at 80.
- Alcohol abuse consistently predicted unsuccessful aging, in part because alcoholism damaged lasting social supports.
- More important than higher retirement savings to later life enjoyment, is playfulness and creativity and the ability to make younger friends as to fill the void when older ones are become ill move away and are unavailable or die.
- A positive subjective attitude toward one’s health called good adaptive coping is more important to aging well than an having good physical health.
The findings of this study and others gives us good news that we can influence factors during our mid life to make our later life happy and healthy. These variables are not beyond our control. An optimistic attitude, ability to adapt and cope with events, sustaining good relationships with family and friends, avoiding substance abuse/dependence, and making a marriage strong, lead us to good health and a happy later life. Many of us figure we should exercise more vigorously, attend yoga more often, eat organic or gluten free, take vitamins or even meditate frequently. While all of those things are good for us, the research quite clearly points to the greater importance of adaptive optimism and a strong and stable marriage for good heath and happiness in later life.
The Importance of a Responsive Spouse and a Secure Relationship
Sue Johnson in her book Love Sense says, ‘a multitude of studies show that a positive, close relationship is one of the best predictors of longevity and physical and mental health.’ Having an emotionally responsive partner when we are less able to perform tasks like climbing stairs, bathing, or lifting heavy objects was found to lower anxiety and depression and support good self esteem.
A strong loving relationship when a spouse is facing death is especially important Johnson suggests. At a program at Princess Margaret Cancer Centre in Toronto, couple counselling was provided to the terminally ill patient and spouse who felt they needed it. Patients reported feeling more comfort with their pain when their relationship was supported. Their spouses felt tremendous gratitude for assistance in expressing their difficult emotions to their spouse during their partner’s illness.
“Secure connection to a loved one not only helps us handle grief better and experience fewer traumatic symptoms but also can nurture and sustain us for the rest of our lives.” Sue Johnson illustrates this with the words of a woman who told her eighteen months after her husband’s death,
“It was hard to lose him, but now when I see something lovely, like the snow falling very gently on a winter evening, I find myself telling him how beautiful it is, and knowing how much he would like it, makes that moment even more beautiful.”
How Responsive is Your Relationship?
Making your relationship stronger, more responsive can happen at any point in your life. During any life transition, we can draw on our partner’s support to help us through it.
Consider a transition you may be about to go through (ie. moving, retiring, changing jobs or becoming a parent).
- Now write down your main worries or concerns you have about it.
- How do you think your partner can help you through this transition? Be as specific as you can.
- How would you ask them for help? Would that be difficult? How do you imagine they would respond?
Wishes for good health and happiness in later life do not come true by chance. They are realized through the life long nurture and care of your significant relationships.