On a flight to Charleston, SC, last fall on my way to present at the American Jail Association’s Mental Health Summit, I met a bubbly interior designer. When I asked her if she enjoys what she does, she responded with an enthusiastic YES! She added: “It makes me happy to make other people happy because of the way I shape the space where they live; life’s too short to not be happy.” Indeed, I venture to say that, at least in our western world, most people who are asked what they’d like in life would say something to the effect of wanting to be happy. The big question is then, what’s the best recipe for happiness?

The Study of the Good Life

In the past we may have had many answers to this question. Now, however, thanks to an 85-year study, the Harvard Study of Adult Development, we have some uniquely convincing evidence about the source of happiness and its impact on health and longevity. This study was conducted by Robert Waldinger, MD, and Marc Schulz, PhD, and it is described in their book, The Good Life: Lessons From the World’s Longest Scientific Study of Happiness. What makes this study so significant is that this study has followed three generations of more than 2000 people—grandparents, parents, and children—for 85 years.

If asked, some people may say that happiness is about having a lot of money; others will say happiness is about fame or professional success; others will say that happiness is based on a good sex life, and others will answer that happiness is about having a good family.

What did this study show about what makes us happy? In a nutshell, the conclusion was that happiness is all about social connectedness, essentially, about love in some form. The study reported that, on average, the happiest people were those who invested in and nurtured loving social relationships. And in turn, these positive social interactions benefitted the study participants’ health and longevity.

To summarize, “The study found that the people who stayed healthiest and lived longest were the people who had the strongest connections to others. The warmth of these connections had a direct positive impact on their health and well-being. Good relationships meant participants were less likely to develop heart disease, diabetes, or arthritis. Broader social networks and more social activity resulted in later onset and slower rates of cognitive decline. The study even found that married people lived longer—an average of 5-12 years longer for women, and 7-17 years longer for men… the study also found that participants became happier as they aged.”1

So, happiness (and its relationship to health and longevity) is associated with building and sustaining loving and supportive relationships. This boils down to investing in others in various ways, such as by spending quality and quantity time together; giving and receiving support, help, encouragement, or respect as needed; and valuing and appreciating others.

Challenges Corrections Staff Must Overcome to Maintain Supportive Social Connections

So how does this recipe for happiness translate regarding correctional employees? When I read this study, my mind started to add up challenges correctional employees need to intentionally and strategically overcome in order to maximize their happiness levels and associated health benefits. What are some of these challenges that must be overcome if correctional staff are to enjoy sustainable positive social connections?

It’s a documented fact that working in correctional environments changes employees in negative ways.2 Over time, staff tend to develop a negative worldview, expecting the worst from others and about the future. As a result, they mistrust others and shy away from social interactions. Moreover, even if they do not become pessimistic and mistrusting, their work-dictated weekends, shiftwork, and overtime, isolate them from others, even when they want to engage in social activities. At work, staff cannot chat openly with coworkers about their private lives, because they do not want individuals they supervise to learn personal details about them. Often, they work in isolation, without another coworker to interact with. Additionally, staff are trained, both at their initial training and by seasoned staff later on, to erect high psychological walls between them and the individuals they supervise. The purpose of that is to avoid being “conned,” tricked, manipulated, exploited to keep from becoming emotionally close to or trusting of individuals they supervise. Consequently, they learn to shut themselves off around other humans to avoid being manipulated. Some seasoned correctional staff with 25+ years in the business told me that they have to turn their compassion switch off with justice-involved persons, to think of them as not human beings, for two reasons: (1) to avoid being manipulated, and (2) to protect themselves from grief when individuals they supervise self-destruct or are physically attacked by other justice-involved persons.

Such emotional shutting down and disconnecting can become habitual, difficult to shake off when interacting with loved ones at home. Additionally, one of the consequences of trauma is emotional numbing, which, of course, also takes its toll on staff’s personal relationships, undermining the most important source of happiness, according to the study we described above. Several Correctional Officers have told me they realized that there was something wrong with them when they felt no compassion or tenderness towards loved ones in distress.

So, what are correctional staff to do to nurture social connections, if they are to experience happiness and its associated health benefits at some level of consistency? The bottom line is that overcoming the roadblocks to happiness in correctional staff’s lives will take hard work—intentionality, motivation, self-honesty, courage, persistence, creativity, strategizing, planning, and follow-through—much follow-through. Nurturing positive relationships in the face of work-related demands does not happen automatically. Doing so requires good interpersonal skills (such as managing conflict), good self-regulation skills (such as managing our angry reactions), and, in our super-busy world, good time management and self-discipline regarding setting priorities. It is work. For some staff, it may even involve leaving the career field of corrections in order to preserve or save precious family relationships or their own health. And if that is what it takes, kudos for them for identifying these realities and embracing them, instead of denying them to their own and their loved ones’ detriment.

At some point, staff may also have to rethink their stance around justice-involved persons. To what degree will they choose to view them as potentially dangerous, but also as human beings with needs and feelings such as their own, as opposed to viewing them as less than human in some ways? A chronically hostile stance (as opposed to a wisely cautious stance) towards others not only burns up extra emotional energy and triggers the stress response in the body over and over, but also, as mentioned earlier, it can generalize to other relationships and negatively shape unrelated interactions, such as with loved ones.

Warning: The Harms of Loneliness

In case we are not convinced about the value of social connectedness, here is some shocking information about the detrimental health impact of social disconnectedness and loneliness. A meta-analysis3 of 148 research studies (with samples totaling 308,849 persons), the majority of which adjusted for risk factors such as diet, exercise, and health behaviors, concluded that persons with more social connectedness had a 50% increased likelihood of survival.

This association became even stronger when considering studies that used complex assessments of social connectedness along multiple dimensions (assessing beyond whether a person lived alone or with someone else, by assessing the complexity and strength of social connectedness with others, such as having large social support networks, like regular participation in gatherings with friends or family, Bible study groups, etc.).

These more complex social connections resulted in a stunning 91% increased likelihood of survival! The effects of social disconnection in predicting mortality rate due to all causes combined were found to be comparable in magnitude with that of smoking 15 cigarettes daily or drinking six alcoholic drinks daily.

References

https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/ health-happiness/2023/02/27/the-goodlife-a-discussion-with-dr-robert-waldinger/

2 Einat, T., Suliman, N. (2021). Prison Changed Me—and I Just Work There: Personality Changes Among Prison Officers. The Prison Journal, 101, 1-21. https://doi.org/ 10.1177/0032885521991091

3 Holt-Lunstad, J., Smith, T. B., Layton, B. Social relationships and mortality risk: a meta-analytic review. PLoS Med. 2010;7(7):e1000316. doi:10.1371/ journal.pmed.1000316