If the viewer count for Robert Waldinger’s TED Talk “What Makes a Good Life” is any indication, a lot of us (43 million and counting) are interested in finding out how to live meaningful and happy lives. In The Good Life: Lessons From the World’s Longest Scientific Study of Happiness, Waldinger and co-author Mark Schulz help readers do just that by sharing with enthusiasm and warm encouragement what they’ve learned as stewards of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, “the longest in-depth longitudinal study of human life ever done.”
The study, which began in 1938 with 724 men and has since grown to include three generations of the original participants’ families, has obtained blood and DNA samples, brain imaging, et al., from its subjects, who have also answered countless questions over the decades. Waldinger is currently the study’s fourth director and Schulz its associate director. In 10 illuminating and wide-ranging chapters, they assert that a truly good life is well within reach if we will acknowledge one straightforward yet profound conclusion: “Good relationships keep us healthier and happier. Period.”
Chapters like “The Person Beside You” and “Family Matters” explore how romantic and familial connections shape and strengthen us. In “The Good Life at Work,” survey participant Loren exemplifies the benefits of developing office allies: Her stress level lowered and her interactions at home improved thanks to a newly boosted sense of belonging. And “All Friends Have Benefits” argues that we shouldn’t underestimate casual friendships. After all, even if someone isn’t a ride-or-die friend, positive-yet-fleeting interactions still “provide us with jolts of good feeling or energy.” What’s not to like about that?
Those looking for concrete how-tos will appreciate the authors’ W.I.S.E.R. (Watch, Interpret, Select, Engage, Reflect) model for breaking out of confounding relationship patterns. Self-assessment questions such as “Was I willing to acknowledge my role in the situation?” will help readers assess and improve on their roles in interpersonal conflicts.
To do that requires flexibility, of course, and that’s another key lesson of The Good Life: A willingness to consider new perspectives is proven to protect our physical and mental health. So, too, will remembering the authors’ uplifting discovery that “it doesn’t matter how old you are . . . everyone can make positive turns in their life.”