What makes for a Happy Life?
This is an age-old question. Is it money? success? good health? fame? work? service?
According to the Harvard Study of Adult Development, the longest scientific study of happiness ever conducted, the single predictor of happiness is relationships. Our connection with others, and relationships in all its forms – friends, coworkers, neighbours, family, colleagues and communities – play a crucial role in shaping our mental, physical and brain health and our overall well-being. People who have strong, quality relationships tend to be happier and healthier than those who don’t. Relationships provide social support to help us navigate through life’s ups and downs. When we know we have people in our corner that can lend a helping hand or offer emotional support and perspective, it gives us the strength and motivation to keep pushing forward. According to the Director of the Study, Robert Waldinger, “Loneliness kills. It’s as powerful as smoking or alcoholism.” Social connection, on the other hand, has the opposite effect, it is health-promoting. Being part of a community and having close relationships can give us a sense of belonging, and is a predictor of a happier, healthier life.
I was not always good about cultivating relationships. I still find it extremely hard to reach out to others when I am going through particularly difficult days during treatment. That’s when I hibernate and tend to withdraw from loved ones for days. It’s almost as if I don’t want anyone to see me at my worst, so I wait until I get past the “caterpillar ” stage before I reconnect with people. But I am working on this. I’m learning not to block out others during this time because I have found that connecting with others is exactly what I need to do when I am not feeling my best. It is what gets me through the hump a little bit easier.
Last night, I was reflecting on all the relationships and communities that I am a part of that have made me richer and stronger and have become a tapestry of my life. There is my Myeloma Community that I joined reluctantly 11 years ago when I got the shocking diagnoses of my cancers. I am now part of the Steering Committee for the Toronto & District Multiple Myeloma Support Group. Through this community, we advocate for myeloma patients and provide information, support and friendship to myeloma patients and their caregivers. Some of my best friends today come from this community.
Then there is my faith community. I am a proud Ismaili Muslim and it is this community that gives me my identity and values. This is the community I reach out to for hope and faith and prayers. There is a a power and mystery in knowing that there is something bigger than you, that things happen as they are meant to happen, and about trusting God’s will. I have some best friends within this community.
My family continues to be a very strong support system for me and I am incredibly grateful to have Nagib, my love and primary caregiver, in my corner every day: driving me to the hospital, coming with me to my clinic appointments, managing the complicated forms, funding protocols and prescriptions, reviewing my blood work with me every month. celebrating the success of the immunotherapy treatment and worrying with me when the side-effects from the treatment cause me grief. It’s tough being a caregiver, but when you are a caregiver for 11 years, it is exhausting and the ordeal can sometimes feel thankless and never-ending. Having Sabrina and Afzal in Toronto at this time has been something I am very thankful for. They just make things better by being around and are always available for support, hugs and insights. And my mom and role-model, Zera, is the wind beneath my wings. She always knows what to say and has a hot water bottle ready for me when needed (because hot water bottles cure everything!).
I have a strong work community of HR practitioners and we challenge each other to be the best we can in service of our clients. It is when I am with colleagues doing work I love to do, that I feel as “normal” as possible, and that’s when cancer takes a back seat. Surprisingly, I have managed to continue to work while on treatment and it has been incredibly fulfilling. I have a best friend as part of this community.
The area where I have made the most progress in over the past few years is in making friends. This was hard for me as I preferred relationships that were casual and uncomplicated, and prioritizing relationships meant investing energy in them and opening up to people in a way that was new for me. As I have been doing more of this, slowly and consistently, I have really seen the positive impact it has made in my life. I now have so many people to share perspectives and exchange ideas with, get together for a meal or event, have conversations with and learn from. It just makes life so much richer and more colorful, and I am so much smarter from connecting with others. Once I committed to relationships – and saw the upside – it was not as onerous an exercise as I thought it would be. It’s literally about taking a few minutes of intentional effort to text or Facetime someone and reach out. The truth is relationships don’t take care of themselves and they wither away from neglect if we do not give them enough care. What can you do to be more active in taking care of your relationships? Is there someone you would like to spend more time with, someone you want to get to know better? Is there someone in your family you would like to repair your relationship with? Can you offer help to someone who is struggling? Can you reach out to a friend and ask for help? Can you call someone who has made a difference in your life and thank them? What can you do to enhance the relationships that matter to you? Yes, it may not always work out and you may not get the response you desire. But what if these moments of reaching out spark ideas or conversations, maybe even friendships? That’s what happened to me in abundance, and there is no turning back now.
I have friends who are skilled at investing in relationships. They seem to do it easily and effortlessly and with grace. I am not at that stage yet but I am committed to taking micro-steps to getting better at building relationships, improving them and making them a priority in my life. After all, my health, happiness and well-being depends on it.
P.S. If this topic is of interest to you, please check out “The Good Life: Lessons from the world’s longest scientific study of happiness“, by Robert Waldinger and Marc Shulz. Dr. Waldinger’s Ted Talk is also worthwhile watching: https://youtu.be/8KkKuTCFvzI.