“If you were to have a fight with a friend, get a low grade on a test, and dislike the weight (i.e., the number) that you saw on the scale – all on the same exact day – which would affect you more?”
We frequently ask questions like this to research participants with and without eating disorders as part of a standardized assessment of common, often troublesome, eating-disordered ways of thinking. This particular question essentially asks individuals to consider, and rank, the things that most influence how they feel about themselves.
The answers that we routinely hear indicate that weight, as well as body shape, strongly influence how people with disorders like anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and OSFED feel about themselves. These aspects are often described as holding equal or greater importance to self-esteem than other values, such as relationships with friends and family, and this is quite consistent with research on this topic in the field. Studies have shown that adults and youth with eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa over-value weight and body shape compared to those without eating disorders. Some data suggest that over-valuing weight or body shape one week can even lead to using more weight control behaviors the following week. And though the over-valuation of weight and body shape is not a criterion for binge eating disorder, adults with binge eating disorder who endorse this feature describe poorer overall quality of life than those without it.
Many of our program’s research participants state that if they do not like their shape or weight on a particular day, it leads to distress, unhappiness, and social avoidance. Avoidance of social interaction carries its own risks. According to Triumphs of Experience, a text that chronicles results of the Harvard Grant Study, social avoidance confers physical and psychological risk in the long-term.
The Harvard Grant Study, which began at Harvard University over 75 years ago, is longitudinal study seeking to identify factors that lead to broadly defined “greatest future success.” The study began in 1938 with 724 men in two groups; one group was composed of Harvard sophomores, the other of boys from the poorest neighborhood of Boston. The men were followed throughout their entire life (and some are still being followed in their 90’s!) with yearly assessments including MRIs, questionnaires, interviews, and even videos of their daily home life. Researchers have been able to use this rich collection of data to try to answer questions beyond the scope of the original hypotheses, including how a variety of factors predict future happiness.
As it turns out, psychology of happiness is not as obvious as we might assume—that is to say, what we might expect to make us happy, frequently does not. Dr. Robert Waldinger, the current director of the study, produced a TED talk on the findings in which he emphasizes that “good relationships keep us happier and healthier.” He also states that the best predictor of health in the men’s 80s was their relationship satisfaction reported decades earlier (while in their 50s). Dr. Waldinger highlights that it is not the quantity of friendships, but the quality that seems to matter most. Those who were socially connected were happier and healthier than those who were more isolated than they wanted to be. Those who felt isolated were found to have greater cognitive decline, poorer physical health, and to lead shorter lives, than their ‘more socially connected’ counterparts.
Dr. Waldinger seeks to disprove the notion shared by many that fame, wealth, and high-achievement are essential ingredients for a good life. Instead, he asserts the importance of your relationship with yourself and with others in maximizing happiness potential. These Harvard Grant Study findings underscore the potential importance of helping people with eating disorders enhance their appreciation for non-appearance aspects of themselves. Because although these illnesses make it seem like body shape and weight are so important today, this longitudinal research reminds us that focusing on this is unlikely to bring great happiness in the future. On the other hand, relationships and doing what you love can bring meaning and happiness to today as well as life satisfaction and good health for the decades to come.