"What Makes a Good Life?"
Recently, I was introduced to Dr. Robert Waldinger. He runs the Harvard Study for Adult Development, a seminal eighty-year longitudinal study of humans that tells us a lot about what creates life satisfaction. His TED talk has been viewed more than 40 million times, and one of the key lessons is relevant to those of us in the Modern Elder community.
While so many of us believe that being rich, famous, talented, or powerful will be the fastest highway to happiness, Dr. Waldinger cautions that it's actually a country road that brings us the most contentment, figuratively speaking. He says, "Most of what we know about human life we know from asking people to remember the past, and as we know, hindsight is anything but 20/20. We forget vast amounts of what happens to us in life, and sometimes memory is downright creative. But what if we could watch entire lives as they unfold through time? What if we could study people from the time that they were teenagers all the way into old age to see what really keeps people happy and healthy?"
While there were many conclusions the study made, one thing stood out above the rest. He continues, "The clearest message that we get from this study is this: Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period."
He outlines the three big lessons about relationships:
1. The first is that social connections are really good for us and that loneliness kills. It turns out that people who are more socially connected to family, friends, and community are happier and physically healthier. They also live longer than people who are less well connected.
2. It's not just the number of friends you have (or whether or not you're in a committed relationship) but the quality of your close relationships that matters. It turns out that living amid conflict is really bad for our health. High-conflict marriages, for example, without much affection, turn out to be very bad for our health, perhaps worse than getting divorced. Conversely, living in the midst of good, warm relationships is protective and healing.
3. Good relationships don't just protect our bodies, they protect our brains. It turns out that being in a securely attached relationship to another person in your 80s is protective (of our brains). People in relationships where they feel they can count on the other person in times of need find their memories stay sharper and for longer. On the other hand, people in relationships where they feel they can't count on the other one often experience earlier memory decline.
So, how is this relevant to you in midlife? Dr. Waldinger goes onto say the following:
"Once we had followed our men all the way into their 80s, we wanted to look back at them at midlife and to see if we could predict who was going to grow into a happy, healthy octogenarian and who wasn't. And when we gathered together everything we knew about them at age 50, it wasn't their middle-age cholesterol levels that predicted how they were going to grow old. It was how satisfied they were in their relationships. The people who were the most satisfied in their relationships at age 50 were the healthiest at age 80. And good, close relationships seem to buffer us from some of the slings and arrows of getting old. Our most happily partnered men and women reported, in their 80s, that on the days when they had more physical pain, their mood stayed just as happy. But the people who were in unhappy relationships, on the days when they reported more physical pain, it was magnified by more emotional pain."
At MEA, we call this "social wellness," the idea that our health and happiness may be more influenced by the people we surround ourselves with than even the food we put in our bodies. Just remember, illness starts with the letter "i" and wellness begins with the letters "we."