WHAT MAKES A GOOD LIFE?
Robert Waldinger, is a Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical and is the author of one of the most comprehensive, longitudinal studies in human history. From this study, the research overwhelmingly showed a consistently repeating marker of “what makes a good life”.
His research showed that the most important factor for longevity, love, and satisfaction in life is the quality of the relationships you have in your life, the love you share with people is more important than eating right, money, exercise, even more beneficial to your health than not smoking. To learn more about his findings, watch one of the most-watched Ted Talks of all time, “What Makes a Good Life” with almost 35 million views.
“The clearest message that we get from this 75-year study is this:
“Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. PERIOD.”
Specifically, the study demonstrates that having someone to rely on helps your nervous system relax, helps your brain stay healthier for longer, and reduces both emotional as well as physical pain.
The data is also very clear that those who feel lonely are more likely to see their physical health decline earlier and die younger. “It’s not just the number of friends you have, and it’s not whether or not you’re in a committed relationship,” says Waldinger.
“It’s the QUALITY of your close relationships that matters.”
It doesn’t matter whether you have a huge group of friends and go out every weekend or if you’re in a “perfect” romantic relationship (as if those exist). It’s the quality of the relationships–how much vulnerability and depth exists within them; how safe you feel sharing with one another; the extent to which you can relax and be seen for who you truly are, and truly see another.
Lydia Denworth, science journalist, author, and the contributing editor for Scientific America and writes for Psychology Today echoes these same results. When adolescence grow up having good friends, it drastically impacts their morality and longevity. Even just ONE good friend makes all the difference. She tells of a story where she left her son and his best friend on the couch playing video games and when she came back she found them in the same spot. Having done this research, where she normally would have been bugged, she instead found beauty. Her son had the same best friend since he was 4 years old and they were now in high school together. She noticed that they didn’t even have to say a word to each other, it felt like home when they were together. They could be totally and completely themselves. If you know what I’m talking about and you’re picturing your best friend right now then consider yourself fortunate. You have found the secret to a fulfilling life!
It may seem obvious, but that doesn’t make it any less true: Love is key to a happy and fulfilling life. According to George Vaillant, the Harvard psychiatrist who directed the study from 1972 to 2004, there are two foundational elements to this:
The first is: what we’ve talked about, having loving relationships
QUALITY RELATIONSHIPS NEED NOURISHING
The second is: finding a way of coping with life that keeps that love, “ doesn’t push it away”, meaning, love takes work. There are times when you take the love in your life for granted, you don’t nurture it and work at it. Anyone that has been married for years can attest to this. Life’s challenges can wreak havoc on relationships. Love can ebb and flow due to the challenges that get in the way: the stress of a new job, the loss of a job, moving, having children, or the loss of loved ones. These are all extreme challenges but even things as simple as being bugged by your partner’s habits or not taking the time to appreciate each other can “push love away”.
When people say “they just fell out of love”, I often wonder if they just didn’t nurture the relationship, pushing the love away. Think about all your relationships: parent/child, teacher/student, friends, siblings, all of these relationships are created through love. But they can just as easily be hurt by the lack of attention and appreciation that accompanies that lack of effort.
Vaillant’s research also found the following:
1. Money And Power…
A man could have a successful career, money and good physical health, but without supportive, loving relationships, he wouldn’t be happy.
“Happiness is only the cart; love is the horse.”
The Grant Study’s findings echoed those of other studies — that acquiring more money and power doesn’t correlate to greater happiness. That’s not to say money or traditional career success doesn’t matter. But they’re small parts of a much larger picture — and while they may loom large for us in the moment, they diminish in importance when viewed in the context of a full life.
“We found that contentment in the late 70s was not even suggestively associated with parental social class or even the man’s own income,” says Vaillant. “In terms of achievement, the only thing that matters is that you be content at your work.”
2. Regardless Of How We Begin Life, We Can All Become Happier…
A man named Godfrey Minot Camille went into the Grant study with fairly bleak prospects for life satisfaction: He had the lowest rating for future stability of all the subjects and he had previously attempted suicide. But at the end of his life, he was one of the happiest. Why? As Vaillant explains, “He spent his life searching for love.” When your goals and actions are rooted in love, your life becomes centered around it. Even in the bleakest of circumstances, people can start to turn their lives around when they root it in love. Make choices that steer you towards it. Read THE POWER OF CHOICE to learn how Viktor Frankl is a prime example of this.
3. Connection Is Crucial…
“Joy is connection,” Vaillant says. “The more areas in your
life you can make connection, the better.”
The study found strong relationships to be far and away the strongest predictor of life satisfaction. And in terms of career satisfaction, feeling connected to one’s work was far more important than making money or achieving traditional success.
“The conclusion of the study, not in a medical but in a psychological sense, is that connection is the whole shooting match,” says Vaillant.
As life goes on, connections become even more important. The Grant Study provides strong support for the growing body of research that has linked social ties with longevity, lower stress levels and improved overall well-being.
4. Overcoming Challenges…
The sooner you are humbled by the experience of life, the better. When you overcome challenges, you can’t help but to come out on the other side, as a different person. You get a unique perspective that will serve you well the rest of your life. You don’t take all that you had to learn to get there for granted. The journey from immaturity to maturity, says Vaillant, is a sort of movement from narcissism to connection, and a big part of this shift has to do with the way we deal with challenges. We are forced to learn coping mechanisms — “the capacity to make gold out of shit,” as Vaillant puts it. Learning to rely on other people for social support creates a human connection through our vulnerability. It says, “I need you and I hope you need me too. I hope I can add value and love to your life, like you are to mine.” The secret is replacing narcissism, a single-minded focus on one’s own emotional oscillations and perceived problems, with mature coping defenses, Vaillant explains.
Mother Teresa and Beethoven are great examples of overcoming challenges. “Mother Teresa had a perfectly terrible childhood, and her inner spiritual life was very painful,” says Vaillant. “But she had a highly successful life by caring about other people.
5. Creative Expression…
Creative Expression is another way to productively deal with challenges and achieve meaning and well-being. “The secret of Beethoven being able to cope with misery through his art was when he wrote ‘Ode to Joy,’” says Vaillant. “Beethoven was able to make connection with his music.” You don’t have to be an “artist” to be creative.
Creative Expression can be sinking your teeth into something rewarding or time-worthy, making something your own. This also helps you to feel a sense of identity and purpose. It’s not until recently that I really understood this and the need for it. For the past 12 years, I have felt a sense of purpose and creative expression through being a mother and teaching them and helping them to develop. They are now getting older and a tad less reliant on me. Having them all in school has allowed me a few hours a day to actually choose what I want to do. At first, it was great to have “free-time” and play beach volleyball, tennis and have lunch with friends but I started to need more than just the fun. I wanted to feel like I was contributing, doing something with purpose and value. I don’t know if it was a midlife crisis but I’m glad I felt it because that uncomfortable unrest is what got me to start writing. For me, this is my creative expression. I have a new zest for life, I feel like I have something for me. Something that says this is who I am and I’m proud to be it: a person who learns, and stretches herself and teaches through her writing so maybe others can better their life as well.
Go out today and love your people! We all have at least one great person in our life. Nourish those relationships! As we just learned, it’s the key to a life worth living.
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