What makes a good life?


what makes a good life

What makes a good life?  Now there is a question with universal appeal!  Who wouldn’t want to know, in advance, what types of things would make them healthier, happier and more fulfilled?

Unfortunately, research shows that we’re not very good at predicting what will make us happy.  I call this the “I want to be rich and famous and then all my problems will be solved!” fallacy.

Just because we’re not good at predicting, however, doesn’t mean that we’re destined to a lifetime of trial and error in search of the holy grail of happiness.  There is plenty of research on what works.  Indeed, one of the longest studies has been going on for the last 75 years.

It’s called the Harvard Study of Adult Development.  Started in 1938, the study follows two groups of people.  The first group was made up of 268 Harvard sophomores.  The second group was made up of 456 young men from inner-city Boston.

Every other year, researchers follow up with the surviving study participants and interview them extensively about everything from their finances and careers to their relationships and social activities.  Then every five years, they do an extensive evaluation of each participant’s health, including x-rays, blood tests and echo cardiograms.

Robert Waldinger, the current director of the study (he is the 4th over the past 75 years), detailed some of the key findings in his excellent TED Talk.  Here is a summary:

  • Relationships and social connections are really, really good for us. They make us happier and healthier and they help us live longer.  Those in the study with good relationships experienced all of those positive outcomes.  Those in the study who described themselves as lonely, however, had a shorter life expectancy, reported being less happy and had worse mental and physical health.
  • The quality of our relationships makes a big difference. The better the relationships, the more positive benefits people experienced.  Participants who were the most satisfied in their relationships in their 50s were the healthiest in their 80s.
  • Good relationships protect your brain. Participants who reported having good relationships and being in healthy marriages had minds that stayed sharper longer and they performed better on memory tests.

So back to our original question.  What makes a good life?  Rather than focusing on wealth, career or material possessions, the Harvard study shows that we would do well to focus on close, healthy relationships.  Again, Robert Waldinger: “…over and over, over these 75 years, our study has shown that the people who fared the best were the people who leaned in to relationships, with family, with friends, with community.”  Keep that in mind as you live life and plan for retirement.

~ Joe

5 Responses to “What makes a good life?”

  1. Robert Mullennix June 18, 2016 at 6:00 pm #

    All of your comments about the benefits of warm realtionships are important and true. An additional key finding is that later life satisfaction is directly correlated with the warmth of relationship with your father. Interestingly, at least for later life satisfaction, it was a father’s warmth not your mother’s that had a strong positive correlation.
    It should be mentioned that the study identified the strongest correlation to later life satisfaction was the negative correlation of alcohol abuse. That is:
    Alcohol abuse is a disorder of great destructive power.
    Alcohol abuse was the main cause of divorce between the Grant Study men and their wives.
    Strongly correlates with neurosis and depression, which tended to follow alcohol abuse, rather than precede it. Together with associated cigarette smoking, was the single greatest contributor to their early morbidity and death

    • Joe Hearn June 20, 2016 at 9:30 am #

      All great points Robert. I wasn’t aware of those additional details, so I really appreciate you sharing. Thanks!

      ~ Joe

  2. Jason September 5, 2016 at 5:45 pm #

    Thanks for all the articles you write. They are all very helpful to me.

    Several years ago my eyes were opened by “The 4 Hour Workweek” and it changed my life.

    Because of what I learned from that book and your website, I am now “retired while still working full time”. How is that? I now take 2-2.5 week vacation trips overseas 3-5 times a year, and work in between my trips.
    In the past I was always looking forward to retiring someday and being able to travel the world. Now I have discovered that I can travel all I want today, without having to retire from my job.
    My big question in the past was: what will I do after I retire someday other than travel?

    Since I am able to do today what I want to do in retirement, in my mind I am already retired and my work is just to fund my trips and the future funding of my overhead when I decide to no longer work some day.

    • Joe Hearn September 12, 2016 at 1:25 pm #

      Hi Jason. Thanks for the comment (sorry for my slow reply). Inspiring stuff. I love hearing from readers who are actually putting things into practice. Planning and dreaming are one thing, but doing is another. Hat tip for doing the hard work of actually getting your dreams off the drawing board. Keep up the good work and I’ll keep writing and doing whatever I can to help. Touch base anytime.

      ~ Joe


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    […] What makes a good life? I wrote about the Study of Adult Development that Harvard has been conducting for the last 80 […]

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