In some ways, the answer is yes to all of these, as each contributes to how you approach life and your appraisal of it. You can’t ignore any one, nor do any offer a universal panacea for the others.
However, in their new book The Good Life: Lessons from the World’s Longest Scientific Study of Happiness, Robert Waldinger and Marc Schulz, the director and associate director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development respectively, argue there is one factor that “stands out for its power and consistency” in helping people live thriving and fulfilling lives. That is the quality of their relationships.
I spoke with Dr. Waldinger to learn why relationships had such power and how we could better cultivate them in our lives.*
Kevin: For those who may be unfamiliar, what is the Harvard Study of Adult Development?
Waldinger: As far as we know, it is the longest study of adult life that’s ever been done. We started the study in 1938 — so I’m the fourth director [Laughs] — and we are collecting data to this day. It has followed the same people for 85 years and has also started following their children, so we now have 724 families.
What’s rare about this study is that it follows people year after year over decades, so we get to see how life really progresses for people rather than just taking snapshots of life at different points.
Kevin: What are the study’s aims?
Waldinger: The aim is to see what helped people thrive as they went through their lives.
This was radical for its time because most research back then looked at what went wrong in human development because they wanted to know how to make things better. But there had never really been a study of what promotes well-being and what predicts who will be healthier and happier as they go through life.
Kevin: Before discussing what makes a good life, let’s first consider some popular misconceptions. What does the research show that we get wrong about happiness and well-being?
Waldinger: There are all these myths in the culture, right? That if you’re rich, you’re happier. That if you’re famous, you’re happier. That if you achieve a lot, you’ll be happier. And none of those is true.
We’ve had rich people, famous people, and high-achieving people in our study, and they’re not happier on average than the people who lead regular lives. The problem, I think, is that our culture holds out these myths because they sell things.
Think of all the messages we get about how we’ll be happier if we buy a certain car, right? Or we’ll always look young if we use a certain brand of face cream. This idea is that we can make everything perfect if we just consume the right things.
And although we all know rationally that’s not true, we can get the feeling that somehow other people have it all figured out, and we don’t.
Kevin: It’s interesting that we listen so much to other people about what will make us happy. You’d think we would know ourselves well enough to accurately predict our future happiness. And yet, speaking for myself here, the success rate has not always been great.
Why do we have such difficulty forecasting what will and won’t make us happy?…
By: Kevin Dickinson