Who is right about the benefits or harms of family life: Harvard University or the Catalan MP?

Recently, several media have reported statements made by the Catalonian member of parliament (MP) Anna Gabriel (CUP, a pro-Catalan independence party), who believes in having children in common “like in the tribes”, considering that this way there is no “sense of ownership” of a child but that they are “sons and daughters that you have had and given birth to with others”. She sees in the family a “perverse logic” and “unrewarding”.

It is curious that Anna Gabriel, however, was not brought up any other way than in a family, and she has always been a great defendant of it. Her own family at least. The MP has stated on numerous occasions that her family has been instrumental in her social and political development, and has even said that her greatest treasure is “the values inherited from my family”.

At the same time as the MP’s statements, and as if it were an ironic coincidence, the prestigious Harvard University has just revealed the conclusions of the Harvard Study of Adult Development , which began in 1938 and which has closely followed and examined the lives of more than 700 individuals, and in some cases their partners. The study aimed to investigate which factors will determine if a person will age well and live a happy, healthy life, or if in contrast, they will suffer a disease or mental illness, something that seems to have a lot to do with loneliness.

Family life and happiness

The current study director, Robert Waldinger, has summarised the most striking results of this project that has been ongoing for more than 75 years, among which is the relationship that exists between stable families and happiness.

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Waldinger recorded the couples in their homes, to study their interaction and interviewed them separately about every aspect of their lives, even the day-to-day quarrels.

“Over and over in these 75 years”, said the expert, “our study has shown that the people who fared the best were the people who leaned into relationships with family, with friends and with the community”. “We publish our findings in academic journals that most people don’t read”, said Dr. Waldinger, professor of clinical psychiatry at Harvard medical school. “And so we really wanted people to know that this study exists and that it has for 75 years. We’ve been funded by the government for so many years, and it’s important that more people know about this besides academics”.

Relationships with friends and spouses strongly influence health

As the research progressed, scientists found that the factors that positively affected the health and well-being were relationships with friends, mainly spouses. Likewise, people with close social relationships were less likely to suffer chronic and mental illnesses, and also less memory loss, even if those relationships had ups and downs.

In fact, the ups and downs in family and social relationships do not negatively affect happiness. In this respect, Waldinger acknowledges that “those good relationships don’t have to be smooth all the time. Some of our octogenarian couples could bicker day in and day out. But as long as they felt that they could really count on the other when the going got tough, those arguments didn’t take a toll on their memories”.

What does Waldinger recommend to achieve happiness?

Very simple:

Maintain close ties. It has been shown that the happiest and mentally healthiest people are those with the closest relationships with their families and friends. In fact, the expert states that they also live longer than those who are more distant from the people they love.

The most important thing is the good quality of the relationships, avoiding conflictive relationships and focusing on healthy ones. The person with most friends is not the happiest, but rather the person who takes care of the ones he has.

To support and put oneself in the other’s shoes. To be connected with another person is beneficial at the mental level. To listen to the other’s problems and force ourselves to understand them.

After analyzing the findings of this detailed study, we ask ourselves…who is right about the benefits or harms of family life: Harvard University or the Catalan MP?

Cristina Castillo Arbaran

Cristina Castillo

Bioethics Observatory


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