I read an extraordinary article in this morning’s New York Times Magazine about the correlation between marital happiness and health. Among the findings: a small wound (8 small blisters created by a suction machine) took one day longer to heal for married people who argued compared with those who discussed “pleasant subjects” like the successful napping of offspring; the blisters of married people whose bickering over matters of little import was particularly rancorous took an extra two days to heal.
The broader upshot is that though studies have consistent shown for 150 years that married people have a significant health advantage over the unmarried, it is also true that married people who are able to navigate the inevitable martial discord in a loving, supportive “you’re wrong but look awfully cute in that halter top” context suffer significantly less heart disease and other malignancies than married people who “fight dirty” as the researches say — who engage in no-holds-barred character assassination while sorting out who should do the dishes.
What I find most extraordinary about these findings is what they say about the broader psychosomatic power of relationships — if this is true of our relationship with our spouses, it’s no doubt also true of our relationships with our friends and community more broadly. We are a deeply social species, and we continue to find more and more consequences of interpersonal behavior.
In recent years I have been moving towards what I call the E.M. Forster Principal — the view that community, broadly defined, is everything. It’s not 50% of our happiness in life, or 75%, but rather 95% plus. (Forster assembled my favorite two word aphorism: Only connect.) So many of the things that we think are critical to our happiness — creative productivity, success, money — may be important only in so far as they enhance community. Community, in this view, is the final currency, the lingua franca, in which everything is valued.
Here’s an example: Though I believe I want to write a beautiful novel ten years from now as an end in itself, the value of that act — writing a beautiful novel — may be in the final analysis the way that experience broadens and deepens my relationships with others. When you have written a beautiful novel (I imagine, not having written one) you meet more people, each of whom has a head start in understanding you. The same case can be made for the value of building companies with teams of people (among the most gratifying experiences I have had), and even the value of making money.
Of course money can both connect you with others — by enabling you to help other people out and build things of value, not to mention spend time interacting with people rather than sewing machines — and it can also disconnect you from people, by causing you to distrust other people’s interest in you, or travel in circles different from those of your original community. I think a credible case can be made that the great “does money make you happy” debate all boils down to whether money builds or erodes community for a given individual. Extreme sums of money are generally more likely to destroy community — there are only so many billionaires, after all, and when you are a billionaire, the rest of the world must seem suspiciously solicitous. A radical change in one’s financial situation in either direction can cut you off from your community — lottery winners end up less happy because they leave their original communities and become distrustful of their relationships, but on the other hand a sudden loss of money makes people (say the Madoff relatives) less happy because it forces them to leave their communities, or no longer engage in bonding experiences central to a given community (like feigning disappointment in food at overpriced restaurants). Fame, I imagine, can have the same double-edged sword as money — a little is empowering to community building; a lot can be isolating. The point, here, is that community is arguably everything.
Now we learn that relationships make us not only profoundly happier, but also heal our skinned knees faster and delay the hardening of our arteries. Alisa, I consider this an appropriate time to tell you that I am profoundly sorry for making cream of wheat last Wednesday that tasted suspiciously like Meyer’s soap (you were right — I will rinse the skillet more thoroughly next time), and hereby pronounce you the winner-in-advance of our the next three marital kerfuffles. There is no “I” in marriage, honey. Wait, there is one. But to quote my esteemed friend Andy Sack in his wedding toast to my esteemed friend Mark Tribe, it’s more important to be together than to be right, even when you are right.