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What makes a good life?

The Harvard Study of Adult Development has followed the lives of three generations, more than 1,300 descendants of the original 724 subjects selected in 1938 – 268 Harvard sophomores and 456 inner-city Boston boys. The goal? To answer the question what makes people flourish? And while undoubtedly there are complex, varied contributing factors, patterns emerge that make this question answerable.

The power of relationships. Individuals who are more connected to friends, family, and community are happier and physically healthier. And those who are more disconnected and isolated experience a decline in health.

The Good Life by Drs. Robert Waldinger and Marc Schulz share the remarkable findings of this 85-year longitudinal study with encouraging news for all of us. It’s never too late to strengthen our human connections.

Are we destined to be loved or lonely based on our childhood experiences, natural dispositions, life opportunities? No. Despite the harsh realities of economic disparities and lack of equality, the evidence is still clear that nothing closes the door to meaningful relationships.

As the authors put it, “your ways of being in the world are not set in stone. It’s more like they are set in sand. Your childhood is not your fate. Your natural disposition is not your fate. The neighborhood you grew up in is not your fate. The research shows this clearly. Nothing that has happened in your life precludes from connecting with others, from thriving, or from being happy.”

Warm relationships are protective of mind and body. The brain receives positive interaction with others and says, YES. Our parasympathetic nervous system responds, communicating we’re safe, all’s well, relax. By contrast, negative contact with others actives our stress hormones – adrenaline and cortisol – signaling DANGER! This danger, real or imagined, may express itself in many ways - rapid heart rate, shallow breathing, throbbing headache, tense neck. Not to mention ruminating thoughts and anxious feelings.

The ancients knew the power of a life well lived among others. Aristotle called it eudaimonia or human flourishing. Lao Tzu said, “the more you give to others, the greater your abundance.” Homo sapiens survived precisely because of our social nature. Going it alone led to extinction.

The authors invite you from “your perch in life” to examine your social universe. Who’s in it? Both strong and casual ties are important. Are your relationships energizing or depleting? Then, exercise your social fitness. Here are their suggestions.

  • Be generous. As my husband puts it, the “giving and the getting” get confused. Research supports that there is a neural and practical bond between generosity and happiness.

  • Learn new dance steps, meaning find new ways of relating to others. Risk being disappointed. See beyond your own fears or concerns.

  • Show radical curiosity. Ask questions. Learn from another person. “It can be a real joy to lose ourselves in the experience of another person.”

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