The Think Smaller Blog is an eight-part editorial series that strives to change the world by empowering anyone to take small, yet potent actions in their community. Taken collectively, we believe these changes can add up to make an incredible difference. Check back every Monday for the latest update.

Focus on Relationships

Where do you turn when you feel overwhelmed? How do you celebrate your moments of joy? If you could name one thing that has had the most positive impact on your life, what would it be?

If you’re among the happiest and healthiest people in the world, your answer to all three questions is probably the same.

Researchers with the Harvard Study of Adult Development — the longest running and most comprehensive study on human health and happiness — have been following 724 men for the last 77 years in their ongoing pursuit of age-old the question, “What does it take to live a full and happy life?”

What they have learned is both striking in its simplicity and ground-breaking in its implications.

Hiding in Plain Sight

Wealth and status are often considered the benchmarks of a life well lived. Yet, the Harvard study has highlighted one factor which has risen time and again as the decisive predictor of how mentally, physically, and emotionally healthy a person will be. Also how happy, confident and optimistic they are. How successful they will become. And how likely they will be to maintain these qualities into old age.

That element is, simply stated, the quality and depth of relationships a person has.

That’s right, there is a magic potion for happiness and resilience after all. It’s just not the one most of us have been taught to pursue.

Participants in Harvard study have run the gamut of human experience — good, bad and indifferent. Some were born into wealthy families. Others grew up in extreme poverty. Some achieved high levels of education. Others never graduated from high school. Some have lived in multi-million dollar homes. A few drifted in and out of homelessness. Some have struggled with addiction, and handful developed severe mental illnesses.

And yet, across this sample, only one common factor can be definitively said to fuel greater happiness and resilience in some over others. And that is whether or not a person has a healthy, caring support network to share in good times and to fall back on in bad.

For those surveyed, it has consistently mattered less what they own or what they’ve achieved, and more who they have to share it with. It has consistently mattered less what obstacles or challenges they have faced, and more who they have to help lift them up, brush them off, and encourage them to keep moving forward.

Trace Your Impact

This raises a couple of really important questions. The answers to which have massive implications, not just on the quality of your own experience, but that of every single person the world round.

One asks, “How much better might your life be if you focused more of your time and energy into nurturing the relationships you already have with friends and family?” 

The other wonders, “What meaningful impact could you have on someone else if you invested your efforts into being part of their loving, caring support network?”

Imagine your life, for the all the good and the bad that comes with it. Picture what it would be like if you didn’t have someone to help pick you up when you’re down. No one to high five you in a moment of triumph. What kind of life would that be? Would you be able to recover from a setback? Or would your motivation and sense of purpose begin to wane?

Now place yourself in the shoes of one of the more than ten million people currently experiencing homelessness in the developed world. How would your life be improved if you had even just one or two friends or family who you could lean on through your darkest hours?

You have the power to change your world. In fact, the power to change the whole world. It doesn’t require status or influence. It won’t cost you a thing. And all it requires is a little bit of compassion, a splash of empathy, a dash of kindness, and as much love as your heart can muster.

It begs you to recognize the power relationships have in your own life, and to harness the potential you have to be a pillar of support in someone else’s.


Jake Shapka is the Coordinator of Brand & Culture integration at the Calgary Drop-In & Rehab Centre. He holds a degree in Communications Studies from the University of Calgary and is passionate about inspiring communities to come together to create a world where everyone feels a sense of purpose, connection, and belonging. You can find him on Twitter by following @jakeshapka.