What is the secret to a long and happy life? Not money, but relationships.

What’s the secret to a long and happy life? Our relationships. This is according to the Grant Study at Harvard, the longest longitudinal study of all time. Social skills are the most important skills we can build. Profmed, South Africa’s largest restricted medical aid scheme for professionals, is producing an 8-episode vodcast series that explores how we can take care of today, while simultaneously building a positive vision of the future. The second episode features Justin Cohen, international speaker and best-selling author, as he explains why strong relationships improve our lives and our health. – Claire Badenhorst

Justin Cohen on the Grant Study at Harvard University:

So there’s the most powerful longitudinal study of all time, [which] comes out of Harvard University. Started in the 1930s, and it’s, in fact, still running. So it’s now studying the children and grandchildren of those original subjects. And it’s called the Grant study of thriving and that’s what they really wanted to understand. What does it take to be happy and successful? They fully expected it would be, you know, whether you went to Harvard or not, what your IQ was. In fact, they found there was one factor that was more important than anything else. In fact, people who registered higher on this earn on average $150,000 a year more than those who are lowest and not only that, they’re happier. So what is that one factor? The strength of your relationships. Relationships are even more critical to overall success than your technical skills. We don’t learn that at school, do we? I mean, don’t get me wrong. I want my doctor to have great technical skills but that’s going to get you through the door. It’s not going to take you up the ladder.

On how to maintain relationships while working from home:

The truth is here in Africa, we’ve always known it. You know, the Zulu have a saying, “Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu”. A person is only a person because of other people. And this is the philosophy of Ubuntu. I am because we are. I truly believe that this is not just the new normal. I think it’s the new better. I think there’s tremendous advantages. We’ve been able to go to work without going to work. We know that has increased productivity. It’s given us more time with our families, but we also know that it has disconnected us. So we’ve seen creative collaboration going down. We’ve got less time with our clients and I think we can compensate for this. I think we need to have more meetings. We’re not just going into policies and procedures, but where we’re actually just connecting with one another, getting to know one another. We know that people do business with people they know, trust and like, but if I don’t know you, I can’t trust you and then I can’t like you. So we need to create opportunities to just connect with one another. Just to get to know one another better. And yes, right now we need to do that virtually.

In some ways it’s humanised people. Right? If we only saw our chief executive in the formality of the office and now we see him with his cats or with his kid crying, his pajamas sometimes, and that camera dips down and you see what’s going on underneath.

There’s certain things that we can do. One of the reasons why Zoom meetings can be a little bit more stressful than normal is that you’re looking at somebody like this – you know, eye to eye. Now generally, if you’re looking at somebody that close, eye to eye, you are either about to make love to them or you’re about to kill them. And now you’re doing this with everybody. So, sometimes just sitting back a little bit, you know, you don’t have to be right up there against the camera.

Decompression time between meetings is really helpful. Just taking time out, stretching, moving, some of the stress of just sitting. We know that neurotransmitters like serotonin, which is boosted by drugs like Prozac, is actually depleted. That happy chemical is depleted when we sit still for long periods of time. So standing up – I do a lot of my calls now, if I’m not looking at someone or I don’t need to look at them, I do them walking around to get that serotonin going. Also, we know that stress is produced by adrenaline – again, if you’re sitting still, the adrenaline is building and building, so again, you want to move, that gets the adrenaline absorbed into the muscles. So, you know, there’s a few things that we can do to, I think, mitigate some of the downsides. And I think we’re learning; this has been a process of learning for us.

On the impact of social media on our well-being: 

We are in the fourth industrial revolution, the most unprecedented transformation in the history of humankind, and we are hitting some speed bumps. I believe that the biggest threat, quite frankly, to human civilisation right now is disinformation, you know, fake news, junk news, conspiracy theories, which has just been proliferated. Facebook has given a megaphone to this nonsense. I think that they are now mitigating; they are shifting those algorithms. I just think we have to be very nervous.

One of the things that really concerns me is emotional well-being. What is shocking is that we live in the most unprecedented real comfort and safety in the history of humankind. I know when people hear that, they think that’s crazy but just think… Longevity has increased, healthcare has increased, and yet we’ve seen tremendous increases in emotional distress, anxiety and depression. Now, sometimes people say, oh, well, you know, it’s a snowflake generation. They’re just, you know, better at reporting. Not true. Suicide levels have increased from 2000 to 2016 by 30%; with women and girls, it’s 50%. Now, the reasoning behind that is varied but one reason that is quite compelling is social media. Yes, social media can be a tremendous good but when it comes to this, looking at these idealised versions of other people’s lives, the trolling – that affects particularly girls [and] can be really destructive emotionally and I think that that has played a role in these increases. So I think we need to be very careful. We allow into the garden of our minds. Yeah, there is this onslaught and it’s very addictive. It’s built that way because Mark Zuckerberg is also on an algorithm. His algorithm is, let’s make as much money as we possibly can and the way they do that is preference negative news and fake news because that’s what sells advertising.

About the importance of giving in all relationships: 

It’s the first law in winning with relationships. This is never going to change, whether you’re in sales, whether you’re in service, whether you’re in leadership. It is, give to get. If you want to get more, you need to give more. Do not try and be a person of success. Be a person of service and success will follow. The more you give.

Adam Grant, professor at Wharton Business School, says you can pretty much divide people into three: givers, takers, or matches. Givers are people who say sew and you shall reap, maybe not immediately, but you get it back because who do you want as a friend? Who do you want to marry? Who do you want to employ? Who do you want as a supplier? Who do you want as your broker? You want somebody who cares. People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. Think about it. If you’ve got two people that are giving you the same product, same service. Who are you going for? The guy who you sense just wants to get the commission; they just want to get the money? Or the one who you feel they really care. You know, this person, they’re going to be there for me. The most successful brokers that I work with are the most giving, they’re the most loving. They care deeply about their clients. Those clients would not go anywhere else. They become part of the family. They’re not just a service provider. They are a partner. They are givers.

So then you get takers. Takers are people who say it’s a dog-eat-dog world. You better take before somebody else does. What those people don’t realise is that they’re the dog. And then you get matches and matches are people who say, if you sew, then I will sew. You don’t want to be on a team full of matches because everybody starves. You can actually get to high office and be a taker. But you’ve got to ask yourself, how will Jacob Zuma go down in history? How will Donald Trump go down in history? Yeah, so you can get there if you give to the right people, but ultimately, it’s not a very successful strategy. Giving is the strategy. When we talk about relationships, we’re not just talking about success in business. We’re not just talking about our success. We’re talking about our health. Do you know that people with the weakest bonds are 50% more likely to die prematurely? Now, smoking is not a good idea, but if you’ve got very weak relationships, it’s worse on your health than being a smoker, worse on your health.

On how giving improves your health: 

This is a Harvard study. So first, the bad news. If you have a major stress in your life, you go bankrupt, you get divorced, you’ve got a 30% increased chance of dying over the next year. If you’re somebody who regularly helps others, who regularly serves others, your increased chances of dying are zero. And scientists think that it’s got to do with a chemical, a neurotransmitter in the brain called oxytocin. Oxytocin is emitted in mother’s milk. It creates that lovely warm bond between mother [and] baby, but it’s actually also a natural anti-inflammatory that protects the heart against stress-related damage. So how do you get the oxytocin flowing? All you need to do is help someone. Connect with someone, serve someone. Those random acts of kindness. If you make an unexpected cup of tea for your partner, it certainly raises their happiness [but] the research shows it boosts your happiness 50% more than theirs. It does show us that actually the gift is in the giving. I mean, in a way, the most selfish thing that you can do is be a giver.

On love languages: 

I’m doing work with sales teams [and] I’m realising that clients have love languages. Look, the one thing about love language is the idea that, you know, people want different things and you want to know what it is they want. Appreciation is one. Gifts is another. Time is another. The one that I think is universal is appreciation. The number one reason people leave a job – lack of appreciation. The number one complaint spouses have about one another – lack of appreciation. We have a negativity bias. So we always looking for what’s wrong and we don’t appreciate what’s right. And it’s natural but cyanide is also natural. So what we have to do is we have to actively be more appreciative and actually make a commitment. Harvard studies show your top corporate culture is ten times the revenue of the weak cultures. The most powerful way you can raise a corporate culture – bring praise and appreciation and celebration in. Be liberal with praise, appreciation, and celebration. High-praise organisations, high-performance organisations. I’ve seen that again and again and again. It doesn’t come naturally. We have to do it deliberately. Just make that commitment. I’m going to tell my partner what I appreciate about her.

This is the most powerful leadership tool: What gets appreciated gets repeated. Number two: Very few things sustainably increase happiness – gratitude is one of them. When you’re thanking someone, you’re giving gratitude for having this person in your life so you feel richer. You feel better. And number three, you appreciate them. They start smiling. It’s contagious. You start smiling, too. One of the most powerful tools to boost any relationship [is] appreciation.

There’s a part of the brain called the Mirror Neuron Network. We mirror the emotions of the people around us. So when [you smile at someone], even if they don’t smile back, the part of your brain that activates smiling is triggered. So we are interconnected. Your emotion is contagious.

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