The next time someone asks why you’re disappearing with your paddling buds into the wilderness for days at a time, tell them this: studies prove paddling is a factor to happiness.

Since 1939, Harvard University has been conducting what’s become the longest-running study on human happiness in the world.

For 80 years, the Grant and Glueck study has tracked the physical and emotional well-being of 724 men. A third were graduates of Harvard’s classes of 1944, and the rest were from inner-city Boston. A few dozen of the original subjects are still alive and in their mid-90s.

The people who were the most satisfied in their relationships at age 50 were the healthiest at age 80

After meeting with and interviewing these men every two years for the last eight decades and generating tens of thousands of pages of findings, the study confirms it’s not the oft-lusted after fame, fortune and success that creates long-term happiness.

How to be a happier person and live a good life

“The clearest message that we get from this study is this: Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period,” says Robert Waldinger, the study’s fourth director and professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

His 2015 TED Talk, “What Makes a Good Life,” has been viewed 25 million times. “The people who were the most satisfied in their relationships at age 50 were the healthiest at age 80,” said Waldinger. The study found a person’s level of satisfaction with their relationships at age 50 was a better predictor of their future physical health than even cholesterol levels.

Close relationships—which doesn’t mean conflict-free relationships—help protect from life’s discontents, delay mental and physical decline, and are better predictors of long and happy lives than social class, IQ, and even genes, the study reveals.

Canoeing Creates Healthy Relationships

All of this is good news for paddlers. Aside from a small minority of dedicated solo trippers, most canoeists go paddling with other people most of the time. And we know there are few better ways to foster a meaningful connection than wilderness travel.

Scientists who study such things say developing friendship boils down to four factors—proximity, frequency, duration and intensity. This must at least partially account for why it’s so much easier for kids to strike up friendships. Being stuck in one elementary school classroom for six hours a day, five days a week does a lot for building comradery.

The last piece of the puzzle, intensity, refers to the quality of the interaction. Think of these four factors like pieces of a pie. You don’t need an intense personal connection to form a solid friendship with someone you see every day at work. The reverse is also true. A brief but intense experience can connect for life two people living on opposite sides of the globe.

Canoe tripping is an intense interpersonal experience, stoking embers of friendship and future wellbeing

Dr. Steven Howell studies the science of friendship at Keystone College in Pennsylvania and found exchanging confidences and taking risks together are two ideal ingredients for establishing or rekindling bonds. Perhaps not so surprisingly, his research found a night out drinking is often a quick and successful way to do this. He also found two people who handle a challenge together—even something small like stumbling home at the end of the night—were more likely to become close.

Time in the wilderness, on the water or around the campfire, also encourages sharing confidences, overcoming challenges, managing risks and lots of high fives—all the benefits of Dr. Howell’s prescribed night out, but without the hangover.

Canoe tripping is an intense interpersonal experience, stoking embers of friendship and future wellbeing. “This message, that good, close relationships are good for our health is wisdom as old as the hills,” says Harvard’s Dr. Waldinger, acknowledging we’re just not always very good at following this advice.

“The ways to enact this lesson in your own life are endless,”he adds.“It might be as simple as replacing screen time with people time, livening up a stale relationship by doing something new together, or reaching out to a family member you haven’t spoken to in years.”

Or you could call up a buddy and go paddling. It’s good for your health— Harvard University says so.


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