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What Makes a Good Life?

I just finished watching a Ted Talk by Dr. Robert Waldinger called “What makes a good life? Lessons from the longest study on happiness.” The study he is referring to is the Harvard Study of Adult Development and has been happening since 1938 or over 75 years! It followed two groups of men: sophomores from Harvard University and the other group were boys from Boston’s poorest neighborhoods. It started with a total of 724 men and is now following the 2,000 children of these men. The comprehensiveness of this study is impressive in time and scope. They tracked all sorts of indicators related to education, work, career, money, success, happiness, social relationships, family, health, longevity etc. In defining a good life they focused on indicators related to health and happiness. There were three main findings of this study.

First, close relationships are crucial for health and happiness. Study participants that reported feeling lonely or isolated were less happy, showed earlier decline in health and, brain function. They also suffered more mental health problems, sleeping problems, and they lived shorter lives.

Second, quality and not quantity of relationships counted the most for health. For example, high-conflict marriages without much affection were not protective for study participants health or happiness and indeed turned out to be very bad for them - perhaps worse than getting a divorce. Moreover, when they examined what was most predictive of living to be a healthy 80 year old for those at age 50 it was not their cholesterol levels, but rather how satisfied they were with their relationships. Those who were happily married also coped better with the aches and pains of aging. When study participants experienced pain in their 80s their mood stayed just as happy. For those who were in unhappy relationships, during the days they felt pain it was magnified by their emotional pain.

Third, stable supportive marriages protects our aging brains. Participants who stayed married in supportive relationships had less cognitive impairment and better memories than their counterparts.

It is interesting that one of the conclusions of this study is not if you go to Harvard and make a lot of money you will have a healthy and happy life. Quite the contrary the findings of this study align themselves with wisdom found in most cultural traditions - loving and being loved by others in supportive relationships is what makes us happy. As a bonus it makes us healthier and age better too!

I think we all would like to live a long healthy and happy life. We also want the same for those we care about. Perhaps one of the most important things we can do to achieve that is to have a stable and supportive marriage. Unfortunately, approximately half of marriages end in divorce and many who stay married have high-conflict relationships without much affection. The good news is we know what makes relationships succeed or fail. (For more information, check out our previous blog “What Makes Relationships Succeed or Fail?”.) In a sense these principles are a roadmap to how to have a harmonious relationship and avoid common dead ends.

If we are lucky we will live to our 80s and perhaps a little longer. Just a blip in time really, but important nonetheless because it is the time we have. In reflecting on these study's findings and their implications for my health and happiness I cannot help to feel a certain sense of the importance of cultivating supportive relationships- especially with my wife, family, and friends. Here’s to living a long healthy and happy life my friends!


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