Robert Waldinger and Marc Schulz direct the world’s most enduring longitudinal survey of happiness — the Harvard Study of Adult Development, which has been closely following individuals from the same 724 families for more than 85 years. They draw on research from two generations of participants in the Harvard Study and glean insights from the latest research from other studies in psychology and neuroscience as well as the wisdom of ancient philosophers. They conclude that relationships are your pathway to contentment. The authors offer strategies for improving the quality of your connections, for making new connections, and for bolstering your overall well-being and life satisfaction.
- The quality of your relationships shapes your well-being and happiness.
- People continue to grow and develop throughout adulthood, particularly as a result of their relationships and life transitions.
- Show others you care by giving them your time and attention.
- Be proactive about nurturing your relationships; begin by taking stock of your relationships and prioritizing your most important connections.
- You can take steps to strengthen the health of your relationships and improve your mastery of your emotions.
- Create more satisfying and beneficial relationships by communicating and listening with empathy.
- You spend most of your waking hours at work. Make the most of them; especially heed your connections with others.
- Human relationships are important on a collective level as humanity navigates global challenges.
The quality of your relationships shapes your well-being and happiness.
Most people say they want to be happy, but what does a happy life look like? The term “happiness” itself is a bit vague. The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle differentiated between “hedonic” happiness and “eudaimonic” happiness. Hedonic happiness is a temporary sensation in response to moment-to-moment experiences. Eudaimonic happiness is more long-term and longer-lasting, coming from a sense of purpose and meaning. That enduring sense of well-being you feel when you’re flourishing and thriving is related to Aristotle’s notion of eudaimonia.
“Relationships are not just essential as stepping-stones to other things, and they are not simply a functional route to health and happiness. They are ends in themselves.”
As the lead researchers of the longest survey of human happiness – the Harvard Study of Adult Development – authors Dr. Robert J. Waldinger and Dr. Marc Schulz examined data collected on thousands of people from two generations. They found that the most consistent predictor of well-being isn’t money or career success.It’s relationships. Positive relationships not only make you happier, they also keep you healthier. When you experience a positive interaction – whether a small one (waving to your mail carrier) or a bigger one (knowing a friend deeply loves you) – that interaction signals safety to your body. This signal is the opposite of the message that stress hormones (cortisol and adrenalin) send to your body when a negative interaction triggers a “fight or flight” reaction. Relationships help people manage stress and navigate challenges. Since prehistoric times, humans have evolved to seek safety in relationships, so healthy ones are vital to your well-being.
People continue to grow and develop throughout adulthood, particularly as a result of their relationships and life transitions.
Adulthood isn’t stagnant. It’s a period of flux, bearing the marks of relationship changes. Psychologists used to focus only on childhood development, harboring the false assumption that once you reach adulthood, development halts. Today, thanks in part to research findings from the Harvard Study and new insights into neuroplasticity, scientists understand that adulthood is a period of tremendous growth and change.
“In the end, it’s about gaining some perspective on the roads we’ve taken and the roads still to come, so that we can help each other anticipate and prepare for the hard curves ahead.”
To be open to growth and change, it is helpful to take time to reflect on your life, considering your journey as a whole and the ways that your circumstances and views have changed over the years. For example, how have your priorities, hopes, goals and self-concept shifted since you were half as old as you are now?
The human life cycle tends to unfold in the following stages:
- Adolescence, age 12-19 – During this period, people form their identity, focusing on the type of person they’re becoming, who they hope to be in the future and what they want to do in life. During this stage, they learn how to navigate new types of intimacy.
- Young adulthood, age 20-40 – Young adults build their own safety nets as they separate from their parents and create new social connections and intimate attachments. They often wonder whether they’re on the right path, if they’re living life consistent with their values and if they’ll find love.
- Midlife, age 41-65 – When people realize their younger years are behind them, they begin to assess whether there are things they should do differently. They entertain existential questions such as, “Is this all there is?” They may reflect on whether they’ve truly connected with others and have a sense of meaning and purpose in their life.
- Late life, 66 and older – As people start to view time as more precious and grapple with their own mortality, they develop a deeper appreciation for their existing relationships. Awareness that life is short leads to a greater emphasis on prioritizing what’s most important, often including having meaningful relationships and making sure they’re leaving a legacy behind.
Show others you care by giving them your time and attention.
The quality and frequency of your connections with others are major predictors of your happiness. Many Harvard Study participants who reflected on their lives in their 80s regretted not spending more time with their friends and loved ones. Leading a good life requires nurturing and caring for your relationships. A first step is giving your time and attention to those who are most important to you; it is the simplest way of showing people you value them. Zen master John Tarrant calls attention “the most basic form of love.” Both meanings of “attention” are important. One refers to prioritizing people by spending time with them. The other refers to being present and attentive when you spend time with people rather than allowing your mind to wander.
“Attention is your most important asset, and deciding how to invest it is one of the most important decisions you can make.”
Research in neuroscience shows that multitasking is a myth. People actually can’t pay attention to two separate things at the same time. Instead of trying to multitask, work on reducing unnecessary distractions including those coming from your smartphone and other technologies. Work on being more present, asking yourself what you may not be noticing about others in your daily interactions. Show interest in others by trying to understand what they are experiencing and communicating. While you may not always understand exactly what someone is thinking or feeling, Waldinger and Schulz’s research shows that simply showing that you’re trying to understand someone helps improve the relationship. People reported feeling more positively about partners whom they believed were making an effort to understand them.
Be proactive about nurturing your relationships; begin by taking stock of your relationships and prioritizing your most important connections.
Relationships need to be cultivated and tended. Otherwise, connections with others wither. A good place to begin is to reflect on the quality of your current relationships and how frequently you interact with the people who are important to you. In good quality relationships, attention, care and support are reciprocal, so reflect on how others are showing up for you and you for them. Identify relationships that energize you and those that you experience as depleting in some way. If you frequently spend time in a relationship that depletes you, can you identify opportunities to improve the health of the relationship or to reduce the time you spend with that individual? Can you find ways to spend more time with those you find enlivening?
“A few adjustments to our most treasured relationships can have real effects on how we feel and on how we feel about our lives.”
Do an inventory of your connections with others using the following elements of good relationships. (Not every relationship will provide all of them.)
- Security and safety – Do you have someone you can rely on and turn to during a challenge?
- Growth and learning – Who inspires you to pursue your goals and encourages you to try new things?
- Emotional closeness – Is there one person you confide in most? Whose advice do you trust?
- Shared experience and identity affirmation – Do you have siblings or old friends with whom you’ve shared identity-forming life experiences?
- Romantic intimacy – Do you feel satisfied with the degree of intimacy and sexual connection in your life? Who fulfills these needs?
- Help and assistance – Who helps you solve practical problems (for example, getting a ride to a medical appointment)?
- Relaxation and fun – Think about the people you enjoy being with and laughing with. Who contributes to your sense of joy and feeling of being connected?
You can take steps to strengthen the health of your relationships and improve your mastery of your emotions.
Former Harvard Study director George Vaillant described two “pillars of happiness” – love and “finding a way of coping with life that does not push love away.” Habitual negative reactions to stress (such as responding with defensiveness to a concerned family member) can harm your relationships. Everyone has habitual ways of coping when stressful events occur. Those who “lean in,” facing their difficulties head on, tend to navigate stressful challenges better than those who try to ignore problems, hoping they’ll go away. By breaking down stressful emotional encounters into stages, people can learn to navigate challenges in more adaptive ways.
“Our emotions need not be our masters; what we think, and how we approach each event in our lives, matters.”
Use the WISER model to respond better to emotionally challenging events and to enhance your relationships:
- Watch – Take a moment to observe the situation closely and consider as many aspects of it as possible. Have you missed something important?
- Interpret – Identify what’s at stake and strive to gain greater insight into why you’re feeling strong emotions. Have you made any false assumptions?
- Select – Carefully identify and weigh your options, reflecting on what you hope to accomplish and your best means of doing so.
- Engage – Respond, executing your chosen strategy with skill.
- Reflect – Learn from the incident, reflecting on what went well and what you might do differently next time.
Create more satisfying and beneficial relationships by communicating and listening with empathy.
Improve your connections to others, including in an intimate relationship, by striving to understand the other person and his or her experience. You can increase and demonstrate your empathy with three practices. The first is “reflective listening,” that is, listening to another person without commenting or judging what he or she is saying and then attempting to repeat back what you’ve heard. (“What I’m hearing you say is ___. Is that right?”)
The second practice is letting your partner know you understand why he or she feels a certain way. Make it clear you grasp your partner’s reactions. (“It makes sense that you feel so strongly about this since you care so much about being kind.”) A third useful practice is striving to view your experience and reactions from a more distanced perspective, as if you were another person watching yourself. This distanced perspective often lessens the emotional heat of the moment and can lead to new insights and opportunities.
“We each bring our own particular strengths and weaknesses into a relationship, our own fears and desires, enthusiasms and anxieties, and the dance that results will always be unlike any other.”
The Harvard Study and others demonstrate that children first learn how to relate to people and manage their emotions within their families. Those who grow up in families that provide support, consistency and warmth are better able to manage challenges and to elicit support from others when they’re facing stress. These strategies for adaptively coping with challenges and emotions also can be learned later in life with the help of supportive people.
You spend most of your waking hours at work; make the most of them.
You might view your work life as separate from your “real life,” but most people spend a significant amount of time working. By age 80, the average person in the United Kingdom has spent 112,000 hours, or 13 years, of his or her life at work and only 8,800 hours socializing with friends. If you view your job only as a means of getting a paycheck, you may be less likely to see work as a place where you can develop authentic and valuable connections with others.
“What if the value of work – even work we dislike – lies not just in getting paid, but also in the moment-to-moment sensations of being alive in the workplace and the feeling of vitality we get from being connected to others?”
While some managers and workers may view having good friends at work as irrelevant or even a drain on productivity, research shows that people with a “best friend” at work are actually more engaged and do better work than those who don’t have a strong friendship at work. While plenty of understandable reasons exist for disengaging from or avoiding work relationships, doing so can contribute to feelings of loneliness and disconnection. To take full advantage of your waking hours, look for opportunities to maximize meaningful social interactions in your chosen workplace.
Human relationships are important on a collective level as humanity navigates global challenges.
The Harvard Study points to the importance of adding a “fourth R” to the “3 Rs” of basic education. Children shouldn’t learn just “reading, writing and arithmetic” in schools; they should also learn about “relationships.” Because human connection is so crucial to well-being, education should include a focus on “social fitness,” or how to cultivate healthy interactions. Schools across the world have begun to catch on, with programs popping up around the globe that teach children how to manage challenging social situations and their accompanying emotions. Research indicates that students who receive this training perform better academically, have fewer conduct problems, use drugs less often and experience less emotional distress. Adults can benefit similarly from such education.
“Week by week, you can prioritize your relationships and choose to be with people who matter. Year by year you can find purpose and meaning through the lives that you enrich and the relationships that you cultivate.”
The COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated the need for relationships and social connection, as many people experienced firsthand the harmful toll of social isolation on their minds and bodies. In the face of global crises, good relationships help people face challenges together and, in this way, support everyone’s well-being. The good life isn’t a destination. It is “the path itself and the people who are walking it with you.”
About the Authors
Robert Waldinger, MD, is a Harvard Medical School professor of psychiatry and the director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development at Massachusetts General Hospital. Marc Schulz, PhD, is a professor of psychology at Bryn Mawr College and the study’s associate director.
“The Good Life: Lessons from the World’s Longest Scientific Study of Happiness” is a captivating book written by Marc Schulz and Robert J. Waldinger. Drawing from the extensive research conducted as part of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, the authors explore the factors that contribute to a happy and fulfilling life. This book offers valuable insights and practical advice based on decades of scientific investigation into the secrets of human happiness.
Schulz and Waldinger provide an in-depth overview of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, which is one of the longest-running studies on happiness and well-being. The book delves into the lives of the study participants, who were followed over several decades, and examines the factors that influenced their happiness and overall life satisfaction.
The main sections of the book are as follows:
- The Study of Happiness: The authors introduce the Harvard Study of Adult Development, its purpose, and methodology. They discuss the importance of long-term, comprehensive research in understanding the complexities of human happiness. Schulz and Waldinger highlight the significance of studying both external circumstances and internal factors in determining life satisfaction.
- Relationships and Social Connections: This section explores the impact of relationships and social connections on happiness. The authors present compelling evidence that quality relationships are central to leading a fulfilling life. They discuss the role of close relationships, such as romantic partnerships and friendships, as well as the importance of social support networks. Schulz and Waldinger provide practical advice on cultivating and maintaining meaningful connections.
- Health and Well-being: The authors examine the relationship between physical and mental health and happiness. They discuss the impact of lifestyle choices, such as exercise, nutrition, and sleep, on overall well-being. Schulz and Waldinger also explore the role of positive emotions, resilience, and coping strategies in promoting happiness and longevity.
- Finding Meaning and Purpose: This section delves into the importance of finding meaning and purpose in life. The authors discuss the concept of “eudaimonic well-being,” which involves pursuing activities that align with personal values and contribute to a greater sense of purpose. Schulz and Waldinger provide insights on how to discover and nurture one’s passions, engage in meaningful work, and contribute to the community.
“The Good Life” presents a wealth of knowledge and wisdom derived from the Harvard Study of Adult Development. Schulz and Waldinger’s writing is engaging, accessible, and backed by rigorous scientific research. The book’s strength lies in its ability to translate complex findings into practical advice for readers.
One of the book’s notable aspects is its focus on the importance of relationships. The authors emphasize that the quality of our connections with others is a key determinant of happiness and well-being. By highlighting the significance of empathy, compassion, and social support, Schulz and Waldinger offer valuable insights on how to cultivate and nurture meaningful relationships.
Additionally, the authors explore the interplay between physical and mental health and happiness. They provide evidence-based strategies for maintaining a healthy lifestyle, managing stress, and promoting emotional well-being. By emphasizing the importance of self-care and self-awareness, the book encourages readers to prioritize their overall well-being.
“The Good Life” also delves into the concept of finding meaning and purpose. Schulz and Waldinger emphasize that living a fulfilling life involves aligning one’s actions with personal values and contributing to something greater than oneself. The book offers practical guidance on how to identify and pursue meaningful goals and engage in activities that bring a sense of purpose and fulfillment.
In conclusion, “The Good Life: Lessons from the World’s Longest Scientific Study of Happiness” is a thought-provoking and insightful book that offers valuable lessons on living a happy and fulfilling life. Through the lens of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, Schulz and Waldinger provide evidence-based strategies for cultivating meaningful relationships, promoting physical and mental well-being, and finding purpose. This book serves as a guide for individuals seeking to enhance their overall happiness and lead a more satisfying life.