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.