The key is to keep company only with people who uplift you, whose presence calls forth your best. –Epictetus
Last April, my brother passed away suddenly after being in an accident. He was 55 years old and my only sibling. In the days and weeks that followed, I subsisted in a foggy state—unsure how to process the events and unable to make even the smallest decision. And everywhere I turned, there was a friend, a family member, or someone from one of my micro-communities—neighbors, members of my meditation group, people from my synagogue—stopping by to lend an ear and maybe a shoulder, cook a meal for my family, and check in to see if there was something I needed.
Those people—the ones who both held me up and held my hand during those dark, incomprehensible days—are my choir. They are the same people with whom, in happier times, I can dance, share a bottle of wine, talk politics, walk my dog and do yoga. I have never been so grateful to have them.
It is our relationships, according to results from a nearly 80-year study done at Harvard, that are the number one predictor of our well-being—both emotionally and physically. More than money. More than fame. “The surprising finding [from the study] is that our relationships and how happy we are in our relationships has a powerful influence on our health,” said Robert Waldinger, director of the study, a psychiatrist and a professor oat Harvard Medical School. “Taking care of your body is important, but tending to your relationships is a form of self-care too. That, I think, is the revelation.”
You don’t need to wait until something tragic happens to notice, nurture and appreciate the relationships that enhance your life from day to day—it may be a gym friend, a work colleague or a cousin who lives far away; your spouse, a church member, or someone you befriended on the internet.
Try asking yourself who’s in your choir, and consider how you can nurture those relationships. Here are a few suggestions:
Carve out time.
Many of us live very busy lives and can be challenged to find time for the people we care about in our technology-tethered world. See if you can carve out 30 to 60 minutes daily to check in with a good friend or family member. Even if it’s for a quick catch-up on the phone or via text. While hard to imagine, before cell phones and the Internet, we were chatting it up with our neighbors and sharing lengthy, family meals.
Be grateful and say so.
Since losing my brother, I often think about the feelings I will never get to share with him. It only takes a minute to send a quick note or text to thank someone you care about. Maybe it’s for taking out the garbage. Maybe it’s because you’re just thankful for their friendship. And if you have some extra time, try writing a gratitude letter to someone you care about, who has helped you at some point in your life—an exercise that research has shown is consistently associated with increased happiness.
Seek out people with common interests.
Some of us may be looking for an additional person or people to bring into our choir. One way to do this is to get involved with an organization or attend an event that is connected to one of your interests—community action, playing an instrument, knitting, for example. Libraries often have book groups and classes that bring local people together, and religious institutions usually offer groups meetings around different themes. Engaging with others who have a common interest, such as a hobby or experience, can make meeting new people feel less intimidating and more welcoming.
When in need, ask for help.
One of the benefits of having close relationships with others is the support you can offer to one another. While it isn’t necessarily easy to ask for help, or to open up about your feelings, it is those you trust that will be grateful that you feel comfortable calling upon them for support. So when in need, ask for help. And know that one day soon, you will be on the help-giving side.
Life can feel lonely at times. Developing and nurturing close relationships—as confirmed by the Harvard study—can have a significant impact, opening us up to happier, healthy lives. “It’s easy to get isolated, to get caught up in work and not remembering, ‘Oh, I haven’t seen these friends in a long time,’ ” Waldinger said. “So I try to pay more attention to my relationships than I used to.”