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Want to have a good life? Eat your veggies, exercise and don’t smoke. But even more important? Nurture your relationships. So says Robert Waldinger, M.D., a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, who has done his share of studying and thinking about happiness as the director of the famed Harvard Study of Adult Development, which has followed the health and habits of a thousands of people through the decades. He and the project’s associate director, Marc Schulz, have mined that rich data to conclude that the indisputable key to a good life is good relationships.
They “keep us healthier and happier. Period,” Waldinger and Schulz write in their new book on the subject, The Good Life: Lessons From the World’s Longest Scientific Study of Happiness.
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The book explores the difference between energizing and depleting social connections, and how to prioritize and enliven the former. The time and effort you put toward nurturing those relationships will be the most important investment you’ll ever make, the authors argue, convincingly.
And anyone can do it, at any age.
“We’ve had people say, ‘I’ve never had a happy life. It’s too late for me,’ ” Waldinger told AARP in a recent interview. “But it’s never too late to make deeper connections.”
You note in the book that our goals so often don’t match what will actually make us happy. Why do we put so much effort into things like making money or becoming famous that don’t lead to happiness?
I think we get so many different messages from our culture, which is just constantly showing us images and giving us the message that other things are going to make us happy. Think about all the ads we see — a car ad that makes you think you’re going to be so much more interesting if you drive this. We receive so many subliminal images about acquiring stuff and acquiring fame. Even though I think that most of us rationally know that that’s not the case [that these things won’t make us happier], there’s so much power in these images.
You’ve found that quality relationships are the key to a good life. How can we make the ones we have more meaningful?
Some of it is really simple: It’s contact. If you have a friend who you wish you were closer to, you could say, “Let’s have coffee every Friday morning” or “let’s take a walk together once a week.” That repetition turns out to be huge for deepening relationships. It really is about face time.