Title: The Good Life: Lessons from the World’s Longest Scientific Study of Happiness | Authors: Robert Waldinger and Marc Schulz | 2023
For more than 80 years, The Harvard Study of Adult Development tracked two generations of individuals from the same families. From the Great Depression in the 1930s, through the COVID-19 pandemic, the goal is to understand what made people thrive. To measure health and happiness, the study did not just ask participants questions. They took brain scans, blood tests, and took videos of participants talking about their lives. After decades of study, the authors conclude that if they can “boil it down to a single principle of living,” good relationships keep us healthier and happier.
What to Expect
To get their points across, the researchers focus on participant stories. Unlike most data-drive studies, you won’t see a ton of percentages and talk of statistical significance here. Rather, you’ll read stories about childhood, love, relationships, and struggles. The authors glean from previous studies on happiness and also philosophy to analyze the findings.
Compared to other longitudinal study, the Harvard Study has a high participant retention rate. For some, it became a moment of self-reflection—a yearly check-in if you will, of how they are doing in life. The book provides exercises and questions, inspired by the study. These exercises are tailored not for research, but to help us figure out how to best navigate our relationships so they contribute positively to our health.
As always, this book review is not meant for you to skip reading the book. Rather, I hope to highlight parts that I find useful to look back on.
The book talks about myths we believe in when it comes to living a good life:
- Diversity and Commonality: the study is a product of its time, and early participants were Harvard students and also inner-city young boys from Boston, mostly from immigrant families. To establish the credibility of the results, the authors talk about how researchers are sometimes skeptical of the study, thinking they have very little in common with the participants. You might think the same way, as you read the book. To dispel the myth, we read about Ananya, a female from India, who after reading stories about the participants “saw reflections of herself”. Regardless of color, background, or upbringing, we share similar “psychological experiences and challenges.”
- Expectations vs. Reality: known as the train study, the authors explain a controlled experiment that looks at what people expect to make them happy and what actually does. We see how most of us are skeptical of human connection. In this experiment, when asked, people thought avoiding talking to strangers in a train made for a more enjoyable ride. We think that talking to people can lead to bad experience. The study proves this expectation wrong. Riders that experienced human connected had a more enjoyable ride.
- Money: there’s a threshold when it comes to money and a good life. “More money does not necessarily buy more happiness, but less money is associated with emotional pain.”
Why We Overlook Relationships
When it comes to cultivating our relationships as the keystone to happiness, it’s not as easy to quantify as money or career growth. This makes relationships easy to overlook. What relationships provide us is protection:
“The number of people you know does not necessarily determine your experience of connectedness or loneliness. Neither do your living arrangements or your material status. You can be lonely in a crowd, and you can be lonely in a marriage. In fact, we know that high-conflict marriages with little affection can be worse for health than getting divorced. Instead, it is the quality of your relationships that matters. Simply put, living in the midst of warm relationships is protective of both mind and body.
This is an important concept, the concept of protection. Life is hard, and sometimes it comes at you in full attack mode. Warm, connected relationships protect against the slings and arrows of life and of getting old.”
The Protective and Positive Relationship
The book refers to relationships as a “goldmine of vitality”. The book devotes the most time on our intimate and familial relationships; however, we also learn about the benefits of having connection at work, our community, and with strangers.
The stories that resonate the most are those of couples who not just live together, but are bound together. These are couples who are strengthened by the ebbs and flow of life, because they are open and talk about their emotions. They give each other attention.
Quoting John Tarrant: “Attention is the most basic form of love.’” But what does it mean to give your relationship attention?
To put simply, understanding another person is great, but just trying to understand goes a long way in building connection.
The authors share how participants who are considered happy and healthy have this type of relationships:
We’ll garden together or I’ll just walk along with her and we just talk about the landscape. I mean, yesterday we went for a 3 or 4 mile long hike…we kept stopping and watching the ducks fly out…there’s a lot of that in my life. These are things that we share. Or when I read a book, I know what kinds of things appeal to her so I can suggest that she take a look at something. And she does the same for me.
When it comes to disagreements:
They talked about it…they got to know what the other was thinking, and either accepted the difference or worked something out. And just as importantly, they scaffolded this process with affection.
The good life is not a destination. It is a path in itself, and the people who are walking it with you.
I find that books on happiness usually come to the same conclusion. But the stories the book recounts add a layer to studies on relationships and life satisfaction. Right after reading the book, I made scheduled FaceTime calls to my mom and reflected on how I can connect more with people that energize my life. I called a tennis academy so my husband and I can take lessons again and hopefully start playing doubles. We love spending time with each other, but some community time doesn’t hurt.
Interestingly, just a few days before I finished the book, a woman in my yoga studio talked about how she was separating from her husband after 35 years, two of her best friends recently moved away, and that women at a certain age lose friends. We talked about grabbing coffee soon.
Tell me about your relationships: How has your relationships affected your happiness? Let me know at email@example.com. I may use your contribution in a future article or newsletter.