Relationships are Essential for Third Third Flourishing

By Mark D. Roberts

October 30, 2020

De Pree Journal

Relationships Are Essential for Third Third Flourishing

by Mark D. Roberts

As part of the De Pree Center’s Third Third Initiative, I recently hosted a webinar with Jeff Haanen, author of An Uncommon Guide to Retirement: Finding God’s Purpose for the Next Season of Life. During our conversation, we wondered together about what helps people flourish in the third third of life.

Exercise Matters

Jeff emphasized exercise. He noted that while we are all aware that exercise helps our bodies, we may not realize that exercise actually helps our brains to be strong and supple as we age.

My friend, Louis Zamperini, skateboarded well into his 80s.

Jeff was spot on in this observation. Recent research confirms the of exercise for our brains, not just our bodies. CBS News points to a study that shows “Exercise may slow down the brain’s aging by 10 years.” The BBC reported on another study that found: “Exercise ‘keeps the mind sharp’ in over-50s.” Last summer the New York Times published an article with this intriguing title, “How Exercise May Bolster the Brain.” In his book, Brain Rules for Aging Well, John Medina sums up the science thus: “By exercising, you are not just slowing age-related decline. Your brain actually gets better at its job. And you don’t have to be an Olympian to reap the benefit. Just take a walk. Or get into a pool” (p. 163).

So, if you want to live well in the third third of life, healthy in body and brain, by all means get plenty of exercise. Or, as Medina suggests, at least take a walk or swim a few laps.

Relationships. Relationships. Relationships.

My answer to the “What helps us flourish in the third third of life?” question pointed to another crucial element of healthy living: relationships. As I have surveyed lots of research on human development, psychology, and aging, it seems clear that having good relationships is crucial to living well in the latter seasons of life. In fact, it’s likely that relationships are the most important element of third third thriving.

This insight is not mine. I learned it from the directors of longest study of adult development ever undertaken. The Harvard Study of Adult Development has tracked the lives of 724 men for over 75 years, asking all kinds of questions about their lives and receiving all sorts of personal data (medical, occupational, psychological, etc.). When the study began in 1939, all Harvard students were male, which is why the study focuses on men only. In-depth information about women was added from the Terman Study at Stanford.

Key findings from the Harvard Study were presented by its current director, Dr. Robert Waldinger, in his extremely popular TED talk (over 35 million views since 2015). In “What Makes a Good Life? Lessons from the Longest Study on Happiness,” Waldinger summarizes its findings in this way:

So what have we learned? What are the lessons that come from the tens of thousands of pages of information that we’ve generated on these lives? Well, the lessons aren’t about wealth or fame or working harder and harder. The clearest message that we get from this 75-year study is this: Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period.

In this observation, Waldinger concurs with the conclusion of George Vaillant, a former director of the Harvard Study. Vaillant once observed, “When the study began, nobody cared about empathy or attachment. But the key to healthy aging is relationships, relationships, relationships.”

There you have it. “The key to healthy aging is relationships, relationships, relationships.” Or, as Vaillant writes in his landmark book, Triumphs of Experience, “[I]t was the capacity for intimate relationships that predicted flourishing in all aspects of these men’s lives” (p. 40).

It turns out that relationships are beneficial, not only for emotional well-being, but also for flourishing as we age. Waldinger explains this surprising finding from the Harvard Study:

Once we had followed our men all the way into their 80s, we wanted to look back at them at midlife and to see if we could predict who was going to grow into a happy, healthy octogenarian and who wasn’t. And when we gathered together everything we knew about them at age 50, it wasn’t their middle age cholesterol levels that predicted how they were going to grow old. It was how satisfied they were in their relationships. The people who were the most satisfied in their relationships at age 50 were the healthiest at age 80.

So, flourishing in the third third depends, not only on the relationships we have when we are older, but also on the relationships from earlier in life.

Brain Science and Relationships

The findings of the Harvard Study on the importance of relationships are confirmed by current research on the brain as summarized in John Medina’s book, Brain Rules for Aging Well. Medina, a molecular biologist and brain scientist in the Pacific Northwest, explains:

Social interactions are like vitamins and minerals for aging brains, with ridiculously powerful implications. Even socializing over the Internet provides benefits. The studies are anchored in the safe harbor of peer-reviewed research. The first set of studies established a solid correlation between social interactions and cognition. Researcher Bryan James, an epidemiologist with the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center, assessed the typical cognitive function and social interactivity of 1,140 seniors without dementia. He scored their social interactivity, then measured their rate of global cognitive decline over a twelve-year period. For the group that socialized the most, the rate of cognitive decline was 70 percent less than for those who socialized the least (pp. 16-17).

The idea that relationships help protect our brains as we age is confirmed by other research. According to Medina,

The answer to the question “Does socialization really decrease the rate of cognitive decline?” is a robust and hearty “Yes.” How exactly does the buoyant power of socialization work? Two main ways: it reduces stress, which helps maintain not only the body’s general health but specific aspects of the immune system, and it’s a workout for the brain (p. 18).

Yes, socializing effectively exercises the brain. As Medina observes, “One of the reasons why social interactions are so good for you is that they take so much energy to maintain, consistently giving your brain a bona fide workout” (p. 19). Thus, “The more social relationships you maintain, the bigger the gray matter volume in specific regions of your frontal lobe. Which means that relationships are to the frontal lobe what milk shakes are to your waistline” (p. 21).

But it’s not just the quantity of relationships that matters here. “Studies show,” Medina writes, “that it’s not the overall number of interactions that benefit health, but the net quality of the individual interactions” (p. 23). In fact, relationships with diverse people and diverse ages offer an extra benefit. Therefore,

It’s best to have friends of all ages—including kids. That notion may transcend our culture’s perspective, but not our culture’s data. The more intergenerational relationships older people form, the higher the brain benefit turns out to be, especially when seniors interact with elementary-age children. It reduces stress, decreases rates of affective disorders such as anxiety and depression, and even lowers mortality rates (p. 24).

I expect many grandparents with young grandchildren have been experiencing the benefits of spending time with their grandchildren, even if they didn’t realize doing so was actually helping their brains to thrive.

Well, of Course!

As I consider the longitudinal research of the Harvard Study of Adult Development and the brain research presented in Brain Rules, a part of me is surprised. Would I have guessed that relationships are essential for having a healthy brain as we get older? Would I have said that relationships are the most important prerequisite for thriving at age 80? I rather doubt it.

But, as I reflect theologically on what the research has turned up, another part of me wants to say, “Well, of course!” Of course relationships matter so much because that’s how God made us. We are essentially relational beings, bearing the image of an essentially relational God. It only makes sense that relationships make such a difference, not just when we are children dependent on our parents, and not only when we are raising our own children, but throughout the life cycle.

Only Family?

Recently Edwards Jones, an investment company, teamed up with Age Wave, which is known as “the world’s leader in understanding the effects of an aging population on the marketplace, the workplace and our lives.” They worked together on a survey of 9,000 people in the U.S. and Canada in order “to more deeply understand the retirement-related hopes, dreams and fears of our clients, their families and our communities.” They published their findings in a recently released report, The Four Pillars of the New Retirement. Their four pillars are: Health, Family, Purpose, and Finances. These four, say Edward Jones and Age Wave, are essential to thriving in retirement in the future, in a season that retirees prefer to call “a new chapter in life.” (Thanks to Richard Bergstrom of Re-Ignite for introducing me to the the Four Pillars paper.)

Given what we’ve seen about the importance of relationships for the third third of life, it makes sense that “Family” is one of the four pillars. But, when I saw that title, I wondered, “Only family? What about close friendships? What about other forms of intimate community? Don’t they count?” I was relieved, therefore, to read the following in the Four Pillars document: “Most retirees draw their greatest nourishment from family relationships. And for most Americans today, family extends beyond blood relatives to include ‘families of affinity.’” Families of affinity would embrace the people we love and care for, regardless of whether we are literal relatives or not.

Relationships in the Biblical Family

The Bible teaches us to view our Christian communities as families. We are not just fellow believers, but also brothers and sisters in Christ. We are to love one another and share life together as members of a covenantal family, a family bound together by deep commitments. (I prefer this way of thinking to what is implied by “families of affinity.”) Our relationships with our sisters and brothers in Christ are some of the most precious, formational, and rewarding in all of life. Of course they can also be trying, frustrating, and disappointing. That’s part of what makes them so formational. Yet, we have within the community of Christ followers the opportunity to develop the kind of relationships that will, among other things, help us thrive throughout all seasons of life, including the third third.

What does the church have to offer to folks as we age? In part, we are able to present a vision of the third third of life that is immensely more meaningful and hopeful than the retirement stories so common in our wider culture. We can present third thirders with the good news that they are still invaluable to God and his people, and that they still have a calling to know God and serve him in the world whether they are working for pay or not.

In addition to lots of good news, we are also able to offer to third third folk a space for developing, nurturing, and delighting in deep relationships, the sort of relationships that enrich all seasons of life. We can help third third couples and their families as they negotiate the opportunities and challenges of the final decades of life. We can provide settings for intergenerational relationships beyond those experienced in literal families. We can offer intentional relationships for those who, by virtue of the limitations of later life, could suffer from loneliness. We can be a community that consistently says, “Yes, relationships matter. Yes, your relationships matter. Yes, you matter to us. Yes, we’re in this together.”

I’ll admit that what I’ve just written isn’t always lived out in real time in real churches. Yes, what I’ve written is aspirational, though I have experienced churches that do offer to third third folks what I’ve just described. But I’ll admit happily that I do aspire to help churches become places that foster the thriving of all people, including those who are in or entering the third third of life. Because of our theology of creation, community, and calling, we can offer what cannot be found elsewhere. We can uniquely address the deep longings, losses, and loves of third third folk, nurturing relationships that are essential for their flourishing.

More from the De Pree Center’s Third Third Initiative

You can find more articles like this one in our Third Third Journal.

Or you can see all of the resources and experiences we offer as part of our Third Third Initiative.

Mark D. Roberts

Senior Strategist

Dr. Mark D. Roberts is a Senior Strategist for Fuller’s Max De Pree Center for Leadership, where he focuses on the spiritual development and thriving of leaders. He is the principal writer of the daily devotional, Life for Leaders,...

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