What does a well-lived life mean? What are the ingredients of eternal happiness? In their compelling book The Good Life: Lessons from the World's Longest-running Scientific Study of Happiness, psychiatrist Robert Waldinger and clinical psychologist Mark Schultz share important lessons learned from studying the lives of hundreds of people in the 20th and 21st centuries. positive interpersonal relationships throughout life.
Dr. Waldinger taught at Harvard Medical School; Mr Schultz in Bryn Mawr. They are currently directors of the Harvard Adult Development Study, which has been collecting data for 85 years. The study began as two separate longitudinal projects, one consisting of 268 Harvard sophomores expected to thrive in later life, and the other consisting of 456 14-year-olds who grew up in Boston's most disadvantaged neighborhoods. The aim of two combined longitudinal studies was to identify predictors of health, happiness, and prosperity in adulthood and beyond.
Initially, the Harvard researchers interviewed participants and their parents and performed a physical examination on each participant. While most of the original members have since passed away, their wives and descendants have been brought in as additional members. The current protocol requires participants to complete a comprehensive questionnaire every two years, certify the publication of medical records every five years, and consent to face-to-face interviews every 15 years. The questions covered all aspects of their lives, such as family, work, mental and physical health, as well as their views on life, politics and religion. Each ranking point provides insight into a participant's life, and taken together, the data paints a rich picture of life as it unfolds over time.
The Good Life is not a complete scientific summary of the Harvard study. Instead, the authors seek to offer practical wisdom for achieving the happiness that accompanies their projects. Social fitness, the authors say, is the key to mental health, physical health, and longevity. Developing the skills that will enable you to develop and maintain positive relationships with others is just as important as eating right, exercising, getting enough sleep, and quitting bad habits like smoking. However, it is easy to take these relationships for granted in today's hyper-competitive and individualistic society.
An important part of social ability is cognitive flexibility, exemplified by the ability to see the world through other people's eyes, express empathic understanding, and give others your full attention. The authors note how technologies such as smartphones and social media distract us and prevent us from caring for our loved ones to the detriment of them and ourselves. They also emphasize the importance of positive work relationships, as well as the mood boost brought about by brief positive interactions with strangers.
Learning interpersonal and emotional skills has become even more important given the epidemic of loneliness, which has been accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic and has led to remote work and learning. Loneliness is not loneliness; feeling social isolation. People who suffer from loneliness experience less positive social contact than they would like. Extroverts are more social, while introverts are less. But volunteer hermits are rare.
Throughout this book, Dr. Waldinger and Mr. Schultz give exhaustive accounts of the struggles, failures, and triumphs of the participants. One of the episodes is about a man named Neil whose mother struggled with alcoholism and helped her daughter who did the same. — Can I get your professional opinion? Neil asked the interviewer at one point. “Is there anything else I can do for him? Do you think I did something wrong?" The writers illustrate their theme of social bonding by praising the way Neil and his wife treat their daughter: “ Sometimes they have to back off, sometimes they have to intervene. But they never went astray . Elsewhere, they show how children who grow up in families with severe problems can still thrive if they have at least one positive contact with one adult, such as a teacher or coach.
Happiness is not a goal, a goal to be achieved. It is not a state of existence, but a continuous process. And the good life is not without disappointments, failures and struggles.
No research without limits. The original participants were far removed from the US population, neither past nor present. The second generation of baby boomers is somewhat more representative, as this group includes women, but the question arises whether the conclusion that holds true for members of the “greatest generation” applies to millennials or members of generation Z.
Dr. Waldinger and Mr. Schultz were aware of this interpretative ambiguity and therefore supported their arguments by drawing on numerous sources of evidence, including other prospective longitudinal studies and studies by experimental social psychologists. To clarify their view of happiness, they also refer to Aristotle's concept of eudaimonia as distinct from hedonia. The eudaimonic life is characterized by purpose, meaning, and well-being, while the hedonic life is characterized by pleasure and joy.
However, the pursuit of happiness can be doomed to failure, as John Stuart Mill observed. After recovering from an apparent bout of major depression, Mill wrote that “happy (I think) are only those whose thoughts are fixed on something other than being their own happiness; the happiness of others, the improvement of mankind, even the arts or research, which are not pursued as a means, but as an ideal end. Therefore, by striving for something else, they find happiness. Waldinger and Mr. Schultz do not mention Mill by name, but given their emphasis on eudaimonic happiness and human growth as a process rather than a goal, I suspect they will find a kindred spirit in Mill.
Mr. McNally, Professor of Psychology and Director of Clinical Education at Harvard University, is the author of What Is Mental Illness?
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