Think You Know What Makes a Good Life? Think Again.

I’ve been feeling quite reflective lately after the passing of a couple of well-loved people in my network. This post seemed timely to revisit, which I started drafting after watching the following TED talk on ‘What makes a good life?’  The TED talk shares lessons from the longest study on happiness via Harvard:

Robert is the fourth Director of the 75 year study tracking the lives of 724 men which is now following their wives (who said it’s about time!) and over 2000 children. The study of adult development has looked at their work, home lives (including intimate conversations with their wives) and health (including medical records). The men were a split group of Harvard Sophomores and a group from one of Boston’s poorest neighbourhoods.

So what have they learned to date? Robert shares:

“Well, the lessons aren’t about wealth or fame or working harder and harder. The clearest message that we get from this 75-year study is this: Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period.”

To all my wonderful single friends, don’t worry a husband or a wife is not the answer. He shares it’s not about being married (study cites you can be lonely in a marriage) but the quality of your relationships versus quantity.

I think this is an important message, especially in an era of reality TV, more and more screen time and increasing complexity in the workplace. In a world where fame and money are often glorified by our youth and viewed as the route to happiness a timely message that in fact what’s the most crucial are those real relationships.

The thing that struck me the most with the study’s findings was that at age 50 it wasn’t cholesterol levels that best predicted health at 80 it was how satisfied the men were in their relationships.

This triggered a few thoughts:

  • I look around in our local community which has a large elderly demographic and am inspired by the connections I see. There is a flourishing community swimming at the beach every morning, afterwards having coffee with laughs and conversations. As Robert shares, living in the midst of strong, warm relationships is protective. Relationships protect our bodies and brains.

  • As we finalise our daycare choice for Ethan one of the centres asked us for our most important decision criteria. We both concurred that our priority is that he is cared for in an environment where he’s having fun and positive relationships are fostered with the other children.

  • With a lot of our family and friends overseas I reflected on the quality of virtual vs face to face relationships. Although there’s no substitute for an in person hug, I do think maintaining connectivity virtually can be equally effective as face to face. With a strong initial relationship you can talk about anything without the need for small talk. Through regularly skyping my parents and sister Holly, giving them a chance to interact with Ethan, I feel like the quality of our time together is still as strong as ever.

Towards the end of his talk, Robert provokes, if you were going to invest now in your future best self, where would you put your time and energy? What might leaning into new relationships look like if you’re 25, 40 or 60? This has prompted me to set some goals including in the areas of family, friends and giving back to the community which I’ll be doing with accountability buddy in a few weeks. It also affirmed the social capital approach I like to take to life, a rewarding relationship based approach to areas including work and exercise.

So what makes a good life? I think there are a plethora of factors including health, well-being, purpose and meaningful work. As Robert so convincingly shares however, the most important being good relationships. As I read recently in ‘The 50 rules of work’ shared by another friend (love the sharing of inspirations): “Work hard. But build an exceptional family life. What’s the point of reaching the mountaintop but getting there alone? “ At the core of my relationships are those with husband Owain and baby Ethan. Owain always helps me keep perspective and you may enjoy his latest blog on: Managing it all

I’ll finish with Robert’s closing message of “Lean into connections with family, friends and community” and a few tips from him and a couple of my own to begin this process if not already:

  • Replace screen time with people time
  • Liven up a relationship by doing something new together
  • Reach out to that family member who you haven’t spoken to in years
  • Head to a local store rather than making that online purchase
  • Look at what events are coming up in your local community and get involved
Dani Matthews

Dani Matthews

Mumpreneur and lifestyle coach whose purpose is sharing learnings and insights through writing and conversation, to inspire others to action (if right for them).