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The Evidence Is in on What Makes a ‘Good Life’

New book explains how relationships are the key to health and happiness

The Good Life
Credit: Katherine Taylor / Simon & Schuster

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.

And sharing more of yourself?

Yes, you don’t have to make yourself vulnerable all at once. You open yourself up in bits, and see how it’s received. If someone is a great listener and they make you feel like, Oh, I can trust this person, then you want to open up more. It’s like sending out little feelers: Is this someone I could tell something very personal to?

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And then you find that you want to be with each other more, because it’s more satisfying to have depth in a relationship.

Exactly.

In one section of the book you discuss the importance of being truly present with another person. You also note your own focus on Zen Buddhism and meditation practice. Have they informed your thinking on this?

Yes. Meditation helped me to understand how much I wasn’t living in the moment — I was on automatic pilot so much of the time. I was checked out at times when it would have been so great to be more present. Even now I’m conscious of that with my wife, Jennifer. We go down to the kitchen in the morning, and she’s on her email, and I’m looking at the paper and we realize that we haven’t really said much to each other. We’re really trying to be more aware of that.

And you write that “love is attention.” Can you give an example?

When Jennifer wants to say something to me, I have now realized that no matter what’s happening, I have to just stop, and turn toward her. Really make an effort that says, “OK, I’m going to give my full attention to you.”

How can people who feel isolated begin to make friends?

One way is to try think about: What are some of the skills that I could offer? Maybe I’m a good bookkeeper or I’m really good at gardening, or I know how to bake. And ask yourself, where could I maybe use that skill with people who would be helped by it? They’ve done all these experiments where they pair up older adults with preschoolers, and the adults just spend time reading to the children. Everybody’s thrilled, because the preschoolers love the attention, and the older adults love the contact. And all it requires is the ability to sit and be interested in a child and read a book. So, think: What are some of the things that you might be able to offer somewhere where you’d be needed and appreciated?

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Find places with people where you feel like you matter, and that’s a place you’ll want to keep going back to.

In the book you note that as we grow older, we become better at maximizing highs and minimizing lows. Why?

We do. We pay more attention to what’s positive, we remember it better and we pay less attention to the negative. That’s a complete reversal from when we’re younger. [When you’re young], if you get one bit of negative information, or one bit of negative feedback, you pay way more attention to that [than to positive feedback]. But it begins to turn around — they’ve actually documented this — somewhere around middle age. At least some of it is motivated by getting older, where death, the finiteness of life, becomes more of a reality. The paradox is that this doesn’t make us more depressed: It helps us emphasize the positive. We tend to focus more on smelling the flowers, on maximizing what we can do that’s positive for ourselves and the people around us. You probably know a lot of people who say, “I’m actually happier now than I was when I was younger.” I am. 

Health is the big variable, however. When your health really seriously declines in later life, then people are less happy. But until then, we tend to get happier.

If you could relay just one message from your book, what would it be?

That you need to be active in taking care of your relationships — that they don’t just take care of themselves. Even really good relationships wither if we don’t do anything about them, if we don’t reach out and spend time and effort on maintaining them. That’s probably the best investment people can make, at any point in their lives, and particularly later in life.

Relationships provide us with all kinds of things, certainly emotional support, but also material support — rides to the doctor, help fixing something that we need fixed. So many things. Every life has challenges, as all of us go through hard times, but the people who have even a few solid relationships weather those hard times better than the people who are more isolated. So if you invest in relationships, you’re kind of investing in a safety net.

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