Participation and Flourishing

The longest study on human happiness ever conducted is the Harvard Study of Adult Development. It establishes a strong correlation between deep relationships and well-being. I read about it this week in an article in Atlantic magazine by the current directors of the Harvard study, Robert Waldinger and Marc Schulz. They have a book out called, The Good Life: Lessons from the World’s Longest Scientific Study of Happiness.

The Harvard Study of Adult Development started in 1938 with 724 participants – all young men. Through the years, the study incorporated their spouses and 1300 descendants of the original subjects. Every two years participants fill out a questionnaire – and researchers visit a selection of them every year for in-person in-depth interviews. The study has tracked participants as they “fall in and out of relationships, find success and failure at their jobs, become mothers and fathers.” The longest in-depth longitudinal study on human life ever done yields that simple yet profound conclusion: Good relationships lead to health and happiness.

And good relationships have to be nurtured – which, too often, doesn’t happen. The US average for time spent on solitary activities – television, radio, staring at their phone or computer screen – is 11 hours a day. The time we spend we spend interacting live with another person – preferably in person – is a lot less. The good relationships that nourish us need time in – live and embodied.

Relationships affect us physically. We feel invigorated by a good conversation, when we feel understood. When they aren’t going well, relationships also affect us: you know the tension and distress you feel after an argument, or the sleeplessness during romantic strife. This is your body responding to the fact that the relationship matters to you. Instead of heeding this message of the relationship’s importance, we often drift away from people – sometimes even spouses, but it’s especially easy to spend less and less time with friends to whom we aren’t married and with whom we don’t live.

Life is relationships. But it’s easy not to participate. Even before the pandemic, researchers spoke of an epidemic of loneliness. And then the pandemic worsened it. A report from the Making Caring Common Project
“suggests that 36% of all Americans—including 61% of young adults and 51% of mothers with young children—feel ‘serious loneliness’”
– meaning they felt lonely “frequently” or “almost all the time or all the time.”

In a separate report, researchers at the Columbia School of Public Health in August 2022 write:
“Loneliness, the subjective feeling of inadequate meaningful connection to others, is prevalent throughout the U.S. In 2019, pre-COVID, 61 percent of Americans over the age of 18 years were lonely, a dramatic increase since the 1970s when rates were as low as 11 percent....Roughly 50 percent of adults over the age of 80 years experience loneliness. The proportion of adolescents and young adults who experience loneliness reaches 71 percent. Contributing factors to the epidemic of loneliness may include changes in family structure and location, longer lives with high rates of loss of significant others in old age, a built environment fostering independence and isolation, weakening of local institutions that strengthened social capital, and the ways the Internet is used by young adults.”
The Columbia report goes on to say:
“The effects of loneliness at the cellular level indicates that chronic loneliness elicits an immune response that promotes inflammation, and chronic inflammation can facilitate the onset of chronic diseases, including cardiovascular diseases, cancer, cognitive decline, Alzheimer’s disease, and frailty. There is also evidence that chronic loneliness leads to adverse mental health outcomes, such as increased rates of anxiety and depression. More broadly, loneliness appears to be a driver of ‘deaths of despair’—deaths due to alcohol, drugs, and suicide.”
The Waldinger and Schulz article notes that loneliness
“can render people more sensitive to pain, suppress their immune system, diminish brain function, and disrupt sleep, which in turn can make an already lonely person even more tired and irritable. Research has found that, for older adults, loneliness is far more dangerous than obesity. Ongoing loneliness raises a person’s odds of death by 26 percent in any given year.”
The U.K. studies of the economic impact of loneliness — "because lonely people are less productive and more prone to employment turnover” — led to the government in 2018 to create a Ministry of Loneliness.
“The first round of funding helped more than 840 organisations across England to connect small groups of people through projects and activities they enjoy.”
Doctors were encouraged to “prescribe” social outings like cooking classes and walking groups. Japan, Australia, and New Zealand also have national loneliness-reduction stragegies. China has gone so far as to make it a legal requirement that adult children visit their aging parents regularly.

The fact that you’re here – in person or in zoom – means you’re doing at least that much to join in. You have found in this place a way to participate, to be with others, to belong. In the U.S. we don’t have a Ministry of Loneliness. But we do have congregations. As your minister, it’s my role to remind you that this place is not just a social club – and that we are here to do the work of spiritual growth – which is to say, for deepening our sense of the meaning of our lives within the widest possible context. If, for you, this place is only a social club, then I’m failing to get through, and our congregation leaders who understand our task as a faith institution are failing to get through. Still, a social club isn’t nothing. Going to a social club on Sunday mornings is better than being alone and lonely staying home. These loneliness studies show that increasing numbers of Americans don’t have any social club -- and such a club could be a lifeline for them.

This place is doing you good -- even for those for whom spiritual work doesn’t appeal. Even so, some of us may have some loneliness. And even if we aren’t lonely, we could use more deepened relationships with more people. As Waldinger and Schulz write:
“We don’t always know why we do things or why we don’t do things, and we may not understand what is holding us at a distance from the people in our life. Taking some time to look in the mirror can help....It never hurts — especially if you’ve been feeling low — to take a minute to reflect on how your relationships are faring and what you wish could be different about them. If you’re the scheduling type, you could make it a regular thing; perhaps every year on New Year’s Day [– or, say, Lunar New Year’s Day –] or the morning of your birthday, take a few moments to draw up your current social universe, and consider what you’re receiving, what you’re giving, and where you would like to be in another year. You could keep your chart or relationships assessment in a special place, so you know where to look the next time you want to peek at it to see how things have changed. If nothing else, doing this reminds us of what’s most important.”
Waldinger and Schulz conclude:
“Relationships keep us happier and healthier throughout our life spans. We neglect our connections with others at our peril. Investing in our social fitness is possible each day, each week of our lives. Even small investments today in our relationships with others can create long-term ripples of well-being.”
Arthur Brooks wrote last year a piece called, “10 Practical Ways to Improve Happiness.” Number 1 is,
“Invest in family and friends. The research is clear that though our natural impulse may be to buy stuff, we should invest instead in improving our closest relationships by sharing experiences and freeing up time to spend together.”
Brooks’ 10 suggestions also include:
“Join a club. The 'social capital' you get from voluntarily and regularly associating with other people,...has long been known to foster a sense of belonging and protect against loneliness and isolation.”
The other 8 – just because I know you want to know – are:
- Be active both mentally and physically.
- Practice your religion.
- Get physical exercise.
- Act nicely.
- Be generous.
- Check your health.
- Experience nature, and
- Socialize with colleagues outside of work.

Our focus today is on relationships – on fostering friendships. Julie Beck did 100 interviews with people about their friendships. She writes, “People are at their most generous, their funniest, and their most fascinating when talking with and about their friends.” While every friendship is unique, she finds six forces fuel friendship: accumulation, attention, intention, ritual, imagination, and grace.

1. Accumulation means the accumulation of time spent together.
“One study estimates that it takes spending 40 to 60 hours together within the first six weeks of meeting to turn an acquaintance into a casual friend, and about 80 to 100 hours to become more than that. So friendships unsurprisingly tend to form in places where people spend a lot of their time anyway: work, school, church.”
2. Attention means “noticing when you click with someone, being open to chance encounters.” The magic of your attention helps you “step out of your habits and into the moment.” An old friendship can be immensely rewarding. Openness to new friendships is also crucial – and that takes paying attention.

3. Intention means taking action. As Beck writes, “you have to put yourself out there, and that requires courage, vulnerability, and a willingness to let things be awkward.” Most friendships require a bit of courtship to get going. Being intentional about fostering a friendship is probably the hardest part of friendship. It takes energy and thought – intention and follow-through.

4. Ritual helps make keeping up with friends easier. Coordinating get-togethers gets much simpler something is baked into your schedule, and all you have to do is show up.

5. Imagination. As Beck explains, our culture encourages us to think of friendships as something
“on the sidelines. They’re supposed to play a supporting role to work, family, and romance. It takes imagination not to default to this norm, and to design your life so that friendship plays the role you really want it to.”
It takes imagination to craft a nonromantic friendship. Beck mentions friends who bought a house together, went to therapy together, raised their children together, committed to an “arranged friendship,” pour hours into justice work together – a man who gave his friend a kidney and a woman who gave birth to her best friend’s quadruplets. “Quieter ways of showing your friends love can still be radical. The beauty and the challenge of friendship is its diversity" – and its only limit is our imagination.

Finally, 6. Grace. Friendship doesn’t always have to be about presence; it can also be about love that can weather absence. Beck’s interviews collected many stories of second chances and rekindlings. This is grace – a gift not earned or deserved. Friends offer forgiveness when we fall short – and that is a grace. Opening ourselves to the possibility of connection and re-connection is also a grace, for we cannot make it happen, cannot earn it, cannot deserve it. Yet sometimes it happens.

We need friends along this path of life. A month or so ago, our congregation’s Nomination and Leadership Development committee asked me for a sermon that would help them in their work. And this is what I offer us. When our Nominating and Leadership Development team invites you to fill a position, they are thinking about our congregation’s needs. You may also think about that, but more to the point, this is a way to develop the friendships that you need, that so enrich your life, and that maybe you, like so many others in these times, have rather neglected.

You’ll be working with others – having that scheduled time together that so facilitates getting to know – and love – each other. Relationship requires attention and intention – accumulation of time in – and the ritual of regular meetings helps. Anthony asked you think about what you could do, how you would like to help – to reach out and ask how you can become more involved. He told of how he went from attending Sunday services to joining committees, to joining the choir, to becoming involved in journey groups and social justice teams. He said he met great people and feels much more connected to the congregation.

This congregation offers such possibilities for enriching relationships – you’ll need some attention and intention to begin to take advantage of them. If you’ll take this New Year – or this lunar new year – to – as suggested -- take a few moments to draw up your current social universe, and consider what you’re receiving, what you’re giving, and where you would like to be in another year – include the reflection on, as Anthony suggested, “What drew you to CUUC?” That question will offer clues about how to now go further with this relationship.

Julie Beck mentioned to role of imagination in the development of friendship, and with things around here constantly in flux, we are called to imagine futures different from our past. You can’t earn or deserve grace – if you could, it wouldn’t be grace – but we can practice grace toward others, and open ourselves to what grace might come, and getting together to do the creative work of the congregation affords venues through which that can happen.

Bring your whole self to CUUC every time you come, said Anthony. When we bring our whole self, our self becomes more whole. The Quakers understand the connection between friendship and congregational participation so well that they call themselves the Society of Friends. That’s not our official name, but we, too, are a society of friends – of relationships. For some of us they have been ongoing and developing for years, and for others of us they are there, waiting to develop to the next level. It just takes some time in, some attention, intention, ritual, imagination, and grace. Say, yes to that.

Blessed be. Amen.

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