Studying what matters: Relationships

Published 1:43 pm Saturday, September 27, 2014

by Andrew Book

We are a society that loves to study the world around us. Sometimes these studies border on silly: a quick online search revealed a study showing how bread tends to fall buttered-side-down when it comes off the table, an assessment of injuries due to falling coconuts, and experiments that involved magnetically levitating frogs. We study more serious questions too. Questions about health and illness, technology, history and the way our universe works.

Some of these studies intrigue me (I have a background in microbiology, so I find studies about bacteria and viruses especially interesting.), while others make me question whether we are misusing our resources. However, earlier this year I discovered a study that has a lot to say to all of us.

The study I am referring to is known as the “Grant Study.” The Grant Study is a long-term study tackled by Harvard University to look at our entire lives in order to determine what are the biggest factors in achieving a happy life.

Harvard began following men who were part of the classes of 1939-1944 during their college years and is still following them today! This study is far from perfect (all the subjects are white men for one thing), but it does provide us with a long-term look at life and how life choices shape happiness.

Books have been written on the findings of this study (three have been published including, most recently, “Triumphs of Experience”), but there are a few main points that researchers and writers alike have noticed. They discovered that alcoholism was the primary cause of divorce among those in the study as well as having a high level of correlation with depression and neurosis. They found that our relationships with our mothers shapes our lives in many (and unexpected ways) well beyond our childhood.

But the most obvious and clear discovery of the Grant Study was how closely meaningful relationships are tied to happiness. George Vallient, the principle researcher for several decades, wrote “warmth of relationships throughout life have the greatest positive impact on ‘life satisfaction’” He later put it more simply: “Happiness is love. Full stop.” The Grant Study was looking at some of the most successful people in the world. The group included successful businessmen, senators, and even a president (John F. Kennedy), but even among a group of high-powered people, happiness in life came through relationships — not power, not money, not fame.

Now, if you have been reading my column regularly, you may have noticed a theme. I talk a lot about relationships, why relationships matter, how to build relationships, and how to strengthen relationships. The reason I talk so much about relationships is because I agree with what the Grant Study discovered — warm relationships are key to happiness. More than that, God created us to live surrounded by warm relationships. The church should be a place that nurtures and creates those relationships in a world that is rarely interested in building relationships. So, in addition to talking a lot about relationships in this column, I also talk a lot about relationships at Courtland United Methodist Church.

This Sunday we are beginning a series titled, “Life Together” based on the simple idea that life lived together, in community, is much better than life lived alone. We are not just going to be talking about Life Together, we are also going to be practicing it. Warm, life-giving relationships take time to develop and nurture, but before they can develop and nurture they have to begin, and we have to make the decision to help those relationships begin.

Once we have begun a relationship, we have to be willing to let that relationship go deeper. Developing relationships requires willingness to give of ourselves and be vulnerable to those around us. We have to be willing to give our time, give a listening ear, and share our lives while also welcoming people in to the struggles that we face.

True life together means that we walk together in both the challenges and celebrations of life. We need others to go with us as we struggle and we need people who will celebrate with us when we succeed. Life is too challenging to navigate its burdens alone. Life is also too beautiful to live with no one to share in its beauty.

I could fill pages with the scriptural passages that point to life in community. The pages of scripture simply assume that following God and living the life God has for us will happen in community. My hope and prayer for each of us is that we would live in a community that looks something like how Jesus lived with his 12 disciples.

They lived life together — all of life. They celebrated together, they failed together, they cried together and they rejoiced together. May you always have someone to rejoice and cry with you. And may you be the one who makes those relationships happen!

ANDREW BOOK is the pastor of Courtland United Methodist Church. He can be contacted at 653-2240 or