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How to Attain the “Good Life”

young woman jumping in excitement on the beachMy wife, Joan, is an only child and she was always very emotionally close to her parents while they were alive. She went away to college at San Diego State University, which was far away from her home in northern California. When she was feeling stressed about her classes or her relationships or whatever, she would call home hoping for answers and support. Her mother would listen patiently, and then tell her daughter, “Well Joanie, everything is fine at home.”
And, although Joan was hoping for specific answers or at least some advice, her wise mother knew that what her daughter needed most was simply the reassurance that the foundation of her life was secure. And you know what? That made all the difference in the world for her. When Joan would hear that, she’d relax knowing that her parents were there to help her weather any tempest that might be brewing in her young life.
A recent survey asked a large group of millennials what their most important life goals were. Most of them wanted to become rich and famous. They seemed to have the impression that the best way to have a happy and successful life was to lean into their work, push harder, make lots of money, and achieve more and more.
Somehow, our frenzied, consumer-oriented, materialistic 21st century deludes us into believing that striving for fame and fortune is what we need to do to build a good life. But it turns out that the truth about health and happiness is quite different from these impressions. We know this in part because of a remarkable study that enrolled a large group of teenagers in Boston and then followed them closely throughout their entire lives.
The Harvard Study of Adult Development, currently under the direction of Robert Waldinger, M.D., may well be the longest continuous study ever done. In 1938 during the Great Depression, this research team enrolled 268 Harvard students and 456 young men from impoverished families who were living in inner-city Boston. These teenagers grew into adults who entered all walks of life; some became factory workers, lawyers, bricklayers, accountants, and doctors; one of them, John F. Kennedy, became president of the United States.
Some struggled with alcoholism, many others with tobacco addiction. Some developed depression, and others schizophrenia. Some of these men climbed the social ladder from the very bottom all the way to the top, and others made that journey in the opposite direction.
For 80 years now the research team has been collecting information about these men using phone interviews, physical exams, and questionnaires. Some of the study participants who grew up in poor neighborhoods would ask the researchers, “Why do you keep wanting to study me? My life just isn’t that interesting.” However, according to Dr. Waldinger, the Harvard men never asked that question.
The Good Life is Built with Good Relationships
So after eight decades of collecting and analyzing massive amounts of data, what are the life lessons this unique study taught us? Well, the secrets to health and happiness were neither about fame and wealth nor about working harder and harder. And it also wasn’t their blood pressure or cholesterol that best predicted how gracefully they were going to age; rather it was how satisfied they were with their personal relationships.
The clearest message to emerge from this powerful study was simply this: Good relationships are by far the single most important factor in keeping us happy and healthy throughout our lifelong journey.
Solid, close relationships appear to buffer us from some of the slings and arrows that arise with the passing decades. Being emotionally attached to the people in your life via mutually secure relationships has a halo effect on your mental and physical health. The study participants who were in relationships where they felt they could really count on their partner to be there for them in times of need, stayed mentally sharp and retained their ability to make new and lasting memories.
In contrast, the people who were in hostile, unloving, or insecure relationships where they did not feel like they could count on their partner to “have their back,” experienced earlier memory decline. By the way, good relationships don’t necessarily have to be smooth all the time. Some of the couples would often bicker with each other, but as long as they felt that they could really count on the other person when the going got tough, those disagreements didn’t seem to take a toll on their health and well-being.
Like the young millennials, many of the volunteers in the Harvard study decades ago believed that they needed to go after wealth, fame and high achievement if they wanted “the good life.” But after following 724 men very closely for 80 years, one single message rang out loud and clear: the people who fared the best were the people who focused on building and maintaining strong relationships with family, with friends and with their community.
Robert Waldinger, professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School says, “Social connections are really good for us, and loneliness kills." It turns out that people who are more socially connected to family, to friends, to a community, are happier, they’re physically healthier, and they live longer than people who are less well connected. And the experience of loneliness turns out to be toxic.
People who are more isolated than they want to find that they are less happy, their health declines earlier in midlife, their brain functioning declines sooner and they live shorter lives than people who are not lonely. And the sad fact is that at any given time, more than one in five Americans will report that they’re lonely.
So what about you? Let’s say you’re 25, or you’re 40, or you’re 60. What might leaning into relationships even look like? Well, the possibilities are practically endless. It might be something as simple as replacing screen time with people time, or livening up a stale relationship by doing something new together, long walks or date nights, or reaching out to that family member who you haven’t spoken to in years; because those all-too-common family feuds take a terrible toll on the people who hold the grudges.”
The take-home message is that strong, close relationships are very good for our health and well-being. This simple wisdom is as old as the hills, and something that you probably already instinctively knew. But as critically important as this advice is, it tends to be often ignored. Why?
Many people would prefer to take a pill to try to fix their problems or hire someone to do this work for them. But this is one chore for which there really are no shortcuts; no quick fix to make our relationships good, and keep them that way. Relationships tend to be messy and complicated, and the difficult work of tending to family and friends is not sexy or glamorous. Instead, it’s a demanding and often thankless job that virtually never ends.
George Vaillant, a previous director of the Harvard Adult Development study wrote, “The only thing that really matters in life are your relationships to other people.”
In Good Health,
James O'Keefe, MD