What makes a good life?

Latest News Friday, 29 Nov 2019

As a young person, if you were going to invest now in your future best self, where would you put your time and energy? This is a question Robert Waldinger put to his audience in an amazing talk – what makes life good?

There have been surveys of millennials asking them what their most important life goals were and over 80% said that their major life goal was to get rich. And another 50% of those also said that their major life goal was to become famous. I believe from their perspective this equated to happiness. So what can our young people learn from this longitudinal study?

Most of what we know from human life we know from asking people to remember the past and as we know, hindsight is anything but 20/20 vision. We forget vast amounts of what happened to us in life and sometimes memory is downright creative.

What if?

What if we could watch entire lives as they unfold through time? What if we could study people from the time they were teenagers all the way through to old age to see what really keeps people happy and healthy? Strangely enough, this has been done.

The Harvard Study

The Harvard study of adult development is the longest study of adult life that’s ever been done. For 75 years the Harvard study tracked the lives of 724 men (yes, it was only men in those days but the study did change) year after year asking about their work, home lives, health and asking all along the way without knowing how their lives were going to turn out.

Studies like this are exceedingly rare and often fall apart within a decade because people drop out or funding dries up or researchers get distracted or die. Through luck and the persistence of researchers, the Harvard study has survived. 60 of the original 724 men are still alive; still participating in the study most of them in their 90’s and the research is now studying the more than 2000 children/grandchildren of these men.

Since 1938 the study tracked 2 groups of men:

Group 1 – all finished college around WW2 then went off to serve in the war.

Group 2 – a group of boys from Boston’s poorest neighbourhoods. Boys who were chosen for the study specifically because they were from some of the most troubled and disadvantaged families of Boston of 1930’s. Most lived in tenements without running hot and cold water.


When they entered the study all of these teenagers were interviewed, given medical examinations, their parents were interviewed, and these teenagers grew into adults who entered all walks of life. They became factory workers, lawyers, bricklayers, doctors, and one president of the US. Some developed alcoholism, some schizophrenia and some climbed the social ladder all the way to the very top and some made the journey in the opposite direction.

Every 2 years, questions were/are resent to the men to complete, about their lives and some still just don’t know why there is interest in their lives.

Medical records

However, to get the clearest picture of their lives, they don’t only get sent questionnaires. They are interviewed in their homes, their medical records are examined, their blood is examined and their brains are scanned. They talk to their children and videotape them talking to their wives about their deepest concerns and when about a decade ago the wives were finally asked if they would like to join the survey, many of them said it was about time.

So what has been learned?

What has been gleaned from the tens of thousands of pages of information? The lessons are not about fame, or wealth, or working harder and harder.

The clearest message that they got from this 75-year study is that good relationships keep us healthier and happier.

They learned some big lessons about relationships.

Social connections are really good for you and that loneliness kills. People who are more socially connected to family, to friends, to community are happier, are physically healthier and they live longer
Loneliness is toxic – people in this position suffer health issues and are less happy, brain functioning declines sooner and they live shorter lives
The sad fact is that 1 in 5 will report being lonely.

Lonely in a crowd

Now here’s the thing. You can be lonely in a crowd and lonely in a marriage so we aren’t talking about people locked away in council housing. Kids can experience loneliness on social media.


It’s not just about the number of friends you have or whether or not you are in a committed relationship but it is the quality of the close relationships that matters. Living in the midst of conflict is really bad for our health. High conflict marriages turn out to be very bad for health – worse than divorce.

Not their cholesterol

Once the men reached 80, the researchers wanted to reflect back on their lives to see who was going to become a happy octogenarian. When they gathered together everything they knew about them at age 50 it wasn’t their middle-age cholesterol levels that were going to predict how they were going to grow old. It was how satisfied they were in their relationships.

People who were the most satisfied in their relationships at 50, were the healthiest at age 80. Those who had close relationships reported in their 80’s that on those days when they had physical pain, their moods remained just as happy. The opposite occurred for those who had no connection – their pain was magnified.

What relationships protect

The researchers also found that good relationships don’t just protect bodies, they protect brains. Those who are connected and close who feel they can rely on someone in need - their memories stayed sharper for longer. The opposite was true for those in relationships that were not close.

This is wisdom as old as the hills. Why is it so hard to get and so easy to ignore? The answer is because we are human and we want a quick fix. The people in the 75-year study who had lost mates actively worked at replacing them. They too believed that fame and wealth and high achievement were the keys to happiness.

How do you resurrect it if it is heading ‘downhill’? It may be something simple like replacing screen time with family time. Investing more time in each other to do things you wouldn’t normally do. (Such as the conversation around the Shabbat table). Or reaching out to the family member you haven’t spoken to in years because the researchers found, those feuds take a terrible toll on one’s health.

The Outliers – Malcom Gladwell

Gladwell said, "What we do as a community, as a society, for each other, matters as much as what we do for ourselves. It sounds a little trite, but there's a powerful amount of truth in that, I think."

So here is the summary - 3 Lessons for relationships that improve your life. If you want to invest in your best life, here are 3 tips you should consider.

  1. Social connections make us happier and healthier while loneliness kills. When you’re more socially connected to your family, your friends, your partner, and your community, you tend to be much happier and healthier. But the reverse is also true: the less connected you are and the more lonely you feel, the more vulnerable you are to an early death. And the unfortunate paradox in this day and age is that a lot of people are more connected before through technology, but less connected to real people in their lives.
  2. It’s not just the number of your relationships but the quality of relationships that counts. Just because social connections make us happier doesn’t mean you should get more of them or keep them all. Unhealthy marriages, for example, were actually almost more toxic that divorcing or staying single. It’s the quality, not the quantity, that counts.
  3. Good relationships protect both our bodies and our brains. Secure, attached relationships — relationships where both partners feel they can count on each other in times of need — protect our mind and our body. That doesn’t mean that you have to find a relationship where there is never any bickering or conflicts. It means that your relationship can protect you as long as you feel you can truly turn to the person you’re in a partnership with when the going gets tough. 

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