I don’t know about you, but I want to live a good life. I want to be happy and fulfilled and look back at the end thinking ‘damn that was awesome’. And like most people, I am working towards having wealth and accomplishing my goals so that I can feel like I lived a good life. But, it turns out that there is something that trumps achieving all those goals that you set out for yourself, and it is actually backed up with proof in one of the longest running studies on adults and their lives.
Robert Waldinger gave a TED talk in November of 2015. If you haven’t watched it, I highly recommend it. He’s not only an easy person to listen and pay attention to, but he’s got some information that could make the difference between a happy and healthy future or an unhappy and unhealthy one.
Robert is the fourth director of The Harvard Study of Adult Development, which may be the longest study on adult life. According to Robert, it’s amazing that the study has lasted this long because most studies like this fall apart for a variety of reasons.
He discuses how the only way to really get this kind of information, before this study, was to ask people to reflect on their life and give you the secrets to living a happy and healthy life. But as he points out, people’s memories get fuzzy and, despite their best intentions, they may not be sharing the most accurate information from their history.
I can tell you that my Nana remembered things very differently from one year to the next. If you had listened to her one year, you would have thought that hard work was what helped her last well into her 90s. But if you were to listen to her a year later, she credited smoking as a stress relief that helped her live a long life. Obviously, she had no clue what the real reason was. I wish she were alive now so I could tell her about this study and what I can clearly see now as the reason she lived such a long and happy life.
My Nana, like most grandmothers, was the center of the family. We all got together because of her. She was the reason we spent holidays together and had barbecues together and stayed in such close contact. When she died, everyone in the family started to go their own way, and those relationships that she valued so much were lost.
Those relationships, it turns out, is what benefits you the most in life. In fact, in the TED talk, Robert says that the clearest message they have received from the study is that good relationships keep you happier and healthier.
Listen to the following talk or read my notes after it to get a summary if you don’t have time to listen. Either way, you will leave here with a clearer vision of what you need to work on starting today to invest in your future happiness and health.
Notes From The TED Talk ‘What Makes A Good Life’ by Robert Waldinger
- Most people have a goal to get rich or get famous, but are these the things we need to have a good life?
- The Harvard Study of Adult Development started in 1938 has been watching 75 years of what started out as 724 men’s lives.
- There are 60 of the original 724 men still alive, most in their 90’s.
- They are starting to track the more than 2000 children of these men now.
- The study started with two groups: sophomores at Harvard college and boys from the poorest neighborhoods in Boston.
- They were interviewed and given medical exams.
- Every two years the men are sent another set of questions about their lives and have their medical records looked at, blood drawn, brains scanned, and families interviewed. They are also videotaped talking to their wives about their concerns in life.
- One of the chosen grew up to be the president of the United States (he didn’t say a name).
- All the men went in all kinds of directions, some experiencing better lives and some experiencing worse than where they started.
- Tens of thousands of pages of information has been generated from this study.
- The data shows that social connections are good while loneliness kills.
- People who have less social connections than they would like to have live shorter and unhappier lives.
- People who have strong social connections are happier and live longer and healthier lives.
- The quality of the relationship is important for the happiness and health. Being able to count on the other person is important.
- At age 50, the biggest predictor of how people were going to grow old was not their health, but their relationships.
- Strong relationships are good for more than just health and happiness, they protect the brain and keep it sharper for a longer time.
- During physical pain flare-ups in people who are in happy relationships, they report being just as happy, while physical pain flare-ups in lonely people produce extra emotional pain as well.
- Stronger relationships require constant work.
The Good Life Is Built On Strong Relationships
It’s clear that the good life – the one we are all striving for, is not about how much you have or where you live or what your title is. It’s about the relationships in your life and how strong they are. And it’s not the quantity of relationships you have; it’s the quality of them.
I can tell you that as I watch my sister-in-law, who is in an abusive marriage and has no close ties left in her life, the reality of what loneliness does to you is visually apparent. Her family on her husband’s side is huge so she is constantly around people, but she is growing old before her time. She is depressed and hopeless about life. In fact, all the life has been sucked out of her. She thought a big family life was going to make her happy, but the quality of her family life is so poor that it is actually having the opposite effect on her.
In the TED talk, Robert makes it clear that it’s about family, friends, and community. We all have access to one or more of those things. I think we should all be taking our relationships in those areas a little more seriously and putting a little more work into them as a smart investment into our future happiness and health.