We are all striving for a happy and healthy life, but exactly which path to take to arrive there can seem extremely elusive. We have fitness and nutrition coaches telling us to devote time and energy to our bodies to feel great. Career and life coaches promise to make us rich and successful. Our acquaintances seen to have endless time for adventure, and they sure look happy posing for their family photos on the beach in Mexico. We can tune in to Instagram and Facebook for a never-ending stream of people who seem to be killing it at life. We have reels and games and drugs and quick submersion into ice-baths to boost our moods, but what will really lead to a lasting sense of contentment? Where should we be focusing our time and energy in order to maximize health and happiness?
In Robert Waldinger’s TED talk “What makes a good life? Lessons from the longest study on happiness,” he talks about the data collected in an 80-year Harvard research study that followed 724 men through the course their lives, 60 of whom were still alive when he gave this talk in 2015. The men were asked about their careers, families, relationships and life satisfaction. Half of the men studied came from disadvantaged families in Boston, while the other half were college students at Harvard University. The teens who began the study in 1938 were interviewed about their lives and given medical exams every two years. These men experienced war, illness, success, love, addiction and heartbreak, and those who are still alive are in their 90’s. It is truly incredible that the study has gone on for this long and has even continued on to examine the lives of the children of the initial subjects. The results are pretty conclusive about what leads to health and happiness, and yes, they are inextricably linked.
He boils it down for us in this 12-minute talk. The study shows that the men who had secure intimate relationships had better health, lived longer and were happier, whether they had high cholesterol in their 50’s or not. Our culture is trending toward more individualism, self-sufficiency and even isolation. We have access to distance learning, grocery deliveries, live streamed workouts and virtual companions, but what makes us happy is the complicated and beautiful old-fashioned relationship. Being with dear friends, even after they’ve disappointed you adds to the quality of your life. Working through disagreements and building trust with your loved ones may not only make you happier this year, but also add another year to your life. The men in this study who reported having meaningful, supportive relationships were more likely to report greater satisfaction with their lives, and they were also more likely to maintain good health into old age. It's worth learning to communicate. It’s worth apologizing. It’s worth facing your fears and being vulnerable enough to ask for help or admit your mistake. Getting a good workout and thinking positively can no doubt improve our lives, but it seems that the most important place to focus our attention is on cultivating relationships based on love, compassion, and trust.