What makes for a happy life? Philosophers have pondered this question for millennia, coming up with different theories and recommendations for people to follow, but not necessarily having any hard evidence to prove their ideas.
That’s what inspired the long-running Harvard Study of Adult Development.
Starting in the 1930s, researchers tracked men from different neighborhoods in the Boston area over several decades, asking them to provide regular updates on their lives, including their current health, income, employment, and marital status. The men also filled out questionnaires and participated in interviews where they revealed their fears, hopes, disappointments, accomplishments, regrets, life satisfaction, and much more. This resulted in rich, in-depth data that researchers could use to assess how life circumstances, experiences, and attitudes affect well-being.
Findings from the study have been parsed over the years as patterns emerged. But now they’ve been put together into a book, The Good Life: Lessons From the World’s Longest Scientific Study of Happiness. Written by the study’s current director and associate director, Robert Waldinger and Marc Schulz, the book not only reveals what factors lead to a “good life,” but also why it’s never too late to nudge our own lives in a happier, healthier direction.
The keys to well-being
It turns out the key to a long, healthy life isn’t necessarily obvious. “Contrary to what many people think, it’s not career achievement, or exercise, or a healthy diet,” write the authors—though those things matter, too, they add. Instead, “one thing continuously demonstrates its broad and enduring importance: Good relationships.”
How can the authors say this so definitively? After all, the study began with only white males in a select geographic area as participants (it’s since been broadened to include others). On the other hand, the authors can point to many other longitudinal studies representing more diverse groups, all of which conclude the same thing: that human connections are important for healthy development and longevity.
“People who are more connected to family, to friends, and to community, are happier and physically healthier than people who are less well connected,” they write.
This is both good news and bad. It suggests a practical way to improve our lives—by nurturing our relationships, no matter how bad things are. But loneliness and disconnection seem to be rampant in society—in part, the authors suggest, because of a culture that pushes us toward going it alone and overachieving at the expense of our relationships. If we don’t understand what makes us happy, they argue, we may end up choosing unwisely—for example, pursuing high-salaried jobs that take us away from our communities.
Their book acts as a kind of course corrective, countering myths about the good life. They support their assertions with scientific findings from many sources, but also include life stories from the people involved in the Harvard study, sprinkled throughout the book. We learn that some men started out in life advantaged and acquired college degrees or great jobs, but they ended up lonely or dying prematurely. Meanwhile, other participants who’d faced more headwinds early in life fared well, finding a job that brought them meaning or a family life that helped them weather ups and downs.
People’s lives don’t always play out the same, of course. Many circumstances make it easier or harder to preserve our well-being—including whether we’ve suffered from the early loss of a parent, discrimination, child abuse, poverty, or illness. For example, Black Americans are more likely to die younger than white Americans because of the stresses of racism and poorer access to good health care. Yet having positive social ties still makes a difference in survival rates, say the authors, suggesting that relationships make us more resilient in the face of life’s hardships.
“There are cultural practices and systemic factors causing significant amounts of inequity and emotional pain. But the capacity of relationships to affect our well-being and health is universal,” they write.
How to cultivate better relationships
Given the importance of relationships in a good life, the authors spend much of the book outlining how we can take our social connections in a more positive direction—whether that’s at home, with friends, at work, or in our communities. Here are some tips they offer.
Take stock by looking inward. The busyness of life can sometimes keep us from assessing the health of our relationships, to our detriment. But taking time to consider our current state of affairs can bring insights. Many of the participants in the Harvard study benefitted from being interviewed at regular intervals, because it helped them realize where they’d neglected their relationships and consider reaching out.
To help you take stock of your own social life, the authors provide a chart where you can make a list of the people in your life while noting the kind of relationship you have with them, the supports they provide, and how often you spend time together. Filling out the chart may clarify what relationships matter most and help you make decisions accordingly. For example, you might find you want to spend more time with the person who makes you laugh and less time with the person who drains you.
Consider how your needs may differ at different stages of life. For example, young adults may benefit from a wide variety of less intimate relationships, which can help them find work or romantic partnerships. The elderly may not need so many friends, but require a few intimates to keep them happy. While some studies find that happiness takes a nosedive in midlife, the Harvard study found that “the happiest and most satisfied adults [in midlife] were those who managed to turn the question ‘What can I do for myself?’ into ‘What can I do for the world beyond me?’” Knowing where you are in life may guide you in how to develop your social network—whether that’s zeroing in on family ties or volunteering in your community.
Prioritize your relationships and be present. Many of us think we don’t have enough hours in the day to give to developing our relationships. But even when we’re not on duty at work or at home, we are probably missing opportunities to spend quality time with the people who matter to our happiness. Too many of us spend our spare moments zoning out with social media or barely noticing who and what is around us, argue the authors. Taking time to bring your full attention to other people when you’re with them is a gift to them and to yourself that can build more closeness. For example, having a close friend at work brings all kinds of benefits.
To be present in relationships, the authors suggest showing curiosity (even if you think you know someone well), listening carefully when people talk, expressing interest, and showing affection (when appropriate), all of which can make even short interactions with others more meaningful—and beneficial to all.
When difficulties arise, be reflective, not reflexive. When conflicts arise in relationships—or even when we’re just overwhelmed with other challenges in life—we may go on autopilot and withdraw from others or lash out at them. Neither of these are ideal ways to manage stress or anger, as they aren’t focused on preserving closeness or working through difficulty. Trying to suppress or avoid emotions is rarely a good strategy for health and well-being and can backfire when it comes to preserving relationships.
The authors suggest that, instead, we take a moment to use emotion regulation strategies to help us deal with anger, frustration, or stress before engaging in conflict resolution with someone else. “The key is to try to slow things down where you can, zoom in, and move from a fully automatic response to a more considered and purposeful response that aligns with who you are and what you are seeking to accomplish,” they write. This can help you be less reactive and give you a better chance of working through issues—whether relationship issues or personal ones.
Let people know how much they matter to you. The book includes many more ideas of how to preserve or enhance relationships, offering hope that change can happen at any stage of life when we use the right tools. One of those tools is expressing gratitude—something we may forget to do in our everyday lives. While many passages in the book inspired me to want to act in support of my own relationships, letting people know they mattered to me was the most inspiring—and the one I took to heart:
“Think about someone, just one person, who is important to you. . .Think about what they mean to you, what they have done for you in your life. Where would you be without them? Who would you be? Now think about what you would thank them for if you thought you would never see them again. And at this moment—right now—turn to them. Call them. Tell them.”