What makes a good life? Robert Waldinger knows the answer. He is the director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, which has continued for over 75 years.
People have their own ideas of what will make them happy. A recent survey of young people showed 80% wanted to get rich and 50% wanted to get famous. We are told to “lean in” to work and push harder to achieve more. But will that make us happy? What if we could watch lives unfold through time? Waldinger and his colleagues did that for 75 years, tracking the lives of 724 men. Waldinger is the fourth director of this unusually long-running study. Since 1938, they have studied two groups of men; a cohort of sophomores at Harvard and a cohort from Boston’s poorest neighborhoods. They collected comprehensive data, medical records and personal surveys.
The main lesson that the researchers learned was that wealth or fame or working harder are not really important to people ultimately. Good relationships make people happy and healthy. The study provided three major insights about relationships. First, social connections are healthy and loneliness kills. Second, the quality of relationships is important. You can be lonely when you are with people. It’s important to have real connections and positive, warm relationships. Thirdly, good relationships are not only good for our physical health, they also protect our mental health.
This message, that good close relationships are important, is common wisdom, but people often ignore it. Why is that? Relationships are complicated and difficult. They are, to some degree, beyond our control and unpredictable. People seek a quick fix, or some controllable sign of status or validation instead of doing the more difficult but more significant work of building relationships. But their study showed that the people who were happiest were the people who worked hard on creating strong relationships, with family, with friends, with community.
How can you build stronger relationships? You can begin by making simple choices and shifting your priorities. Replace screen time with time spent in person. Do something new with a friend. Reach out to a family member that you haven’t spoken to. Say yes to social opportunities.
Waldinger closes with a quote from Mark Twain. “There isn’t time, so brief is life, for bickerings, apologies, heartburnings, callings to account. There is only time for loving, and but an instant, so to speak, for that.”
“The good life is built with good relationships. “ – Robert Waldinger