I recently watched a short TED talk on What Makes a Good Life? The talk was given in 2015 by Dr. Robert Waldinger, the fourth director of a study that has been going on for over 75 years at Harvard.
Back in 1938, Harvard asked over 700 men — a mix of Harvard undergrads and Boston street toughs — to allow their lives to be studied. Naturally, most studies flame out after a few years, for lack of interest or funding or succession planning, and that makes this study highly unusual, because for over 7 decades, Harvard has followed these men consistently (and now, their children and wives) to evaluate what makes for a good life: a happy, healthy, satisfying, long life.
The lives of the men in the study have been wildly different: many of them served in the military in wartime, some of them became captains of industry, some went to jail, some to Congress, some to rehab. There were mental illnesses and wild successes and terrible failures and highlights and losses…but as the stories unfolded, Harvard was there, recording, interviewing, documenting.
And then they went to work, sifting through thousands of hours of data to determine what makes for a long and happy life. And the answers were, just as you expected:
- heaps of money
- international fame
- Ha ha. Not at all. Not even close.
The key finding of the study, the lone standout among the factors contributing to a long and happy life, was this: good relationships.
As Dr. Waldinger says, good relationships keep us happier and healthier, protect our brains, and lead to longer lives.
So what does that mean, “good relationships?” A ton of friends? A long marriage? Facebook friends by the thousands?
As Waldinger points out, “You can be lonely in a crowd, and lonely in a marriage. So it’s not just the number of friends you have, or whether you’re in a committed marriage. It’s the quality of your close relationships that matter. It turns out that living in the midst of conflict is really bad for our health. High conflict marriages, for example, marriages without much affection, turn out to be very bad for our health, perhaps worse than getting divorced. But living in the midst of good, warm relationships is protective.”
Once Harvard’s original group of men had reached their 80s, the scientists looked back at what they’d reported in their 50s, to see what predictive indicators existed.
Could they draw a connection between what the men reported in their 50s, and how they were living in their 80s?
Yes, according to Waldinger, and the predictor for a healthy old age wasn’t the men’s cholesterol readings or anything else of that nature.
It was how satisfied they were in their relationships. Good relationships, according to Waldinger, are the most important factor of good health and long life.
Happy relationships buffered the men from the pains of aging, while unhappiness in relationships magnified physical pain. Loneliness, whether inside or outside of a marriage, decreased both health and life expectancy.
And as it turns out, being in a secure relationship, in which you feel “you can really count on the other person in times of need,” is the key to brain health, too. Memory decline happens earlier for the people who are not in happy, secure, supportive relationships.
What does it mean, then, to be in a “good” relationship? I’m going back to Henri Nouwen on this one, because I think he summed up the human need to matter to someone , to belong to someone, beautifully, in a series of questions he posed in an interview. [Don’t remember Henri Nouwen? Check out Oh, yeahhhh!]
Where are you getting your affection? Who’s touching you? Who’s holding you? Who makes you feel alive? Who says, “You are a beautiful person, you are the beloved of God, don’t forget it?” …. If you feel loved, you can do a thousand things. If you feel rejected, everything becomes a problem.
That sums it up, wouldn’t you say? All the things we think we want from a partner — a tender heart and affection and a sense of humor and wit and brains and looks and compatible goals and fidelity and compassion — come under the heading of making you feel alive and letting you know that you are the beloved of God.
Because at the end of the day, all that any of us really want is to know that we matter.
To watch Dr. Waldinger’s TED talk, which is brief: Robert Waldinger TEDxBeacon
To learn more about Dr. Waldinger (who’s also a Zen priest, in addition to being a Harvard educated psychiatrist and psychoanalyst): Dr. Robert Waldinger
To read the entire interview with Father Nouwen, click here: Fr. Henri Nouwen Interview