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What makes a good life?

What is a life well-led? What question could be more important? 

But what question could be more difficult to answer? For most of us, we are still very much in the middle of life's journey, some parts of life still being figured out. In addition, asking people once to answer such a complicated question leads to simplified and generic answers, which wouldn't be much use anyway.

Enter the longest study of happiness - the Harvard study of Adult Development. It tracked - through interviews (with participants and family members), questionnaires, medical records, brain scans - the lives of 724 men since 1938. 

The men came from 2 distinct groups -  the first: Harvard students from their second year of study onward; and 2) boys from some of the troubled and poorest families in the Boston area.  And they were tracked every year for 75 years. So the answers were cumulative as their lives unfolded. The rigour in which the tests are conducted is important here, because I really wouldn't value simply asking people once at the end of their lives what made good. 

So what has this incredibly long-running study produced?

The good life is built with good relationships. Good relationships make us happier and healthier:

  • People who have forged strong relationships suffer from less medical conditions and do so later in life. The people who were the most satisfied with their relationships at 50 were the healthiest at age 80. Good relationships kept participants healthier and slowed down the rate of brain decline The converse is also true; people who felt lonely were less happy, saw their health decline earlier, and slowing brain functions. 

  • It's not about the number of relationships, but the quality of the relationships.  Good quality relationships didn't need to be smooth and happy all the time. But these are the relationships where there is confidence from both sides that they are able to depend on each other in times of need. Those who reflected that they felt they were in a safe relationship with people they can count on in times of need have memories that stay sharper, longer.

  • Those that remained happiest even in retirement were those who tended to their relationships and even sought new ones through life. There's a Mark Twain quote thrown in for good measure:  "There isn't time, so brief is life, for bickerings, apologies, heartburnings, callings to account. There is only time for loving, and but an instant, so to speak, for that." 

This talk really struck me very hard. I kind of really hit all 3 strikes, and it sucks. But it's also the main driving force for me to change my life, and I hope that whatever situation you're in, you'd find and/or build better relationships.

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