What Makes a Wonderful Life? A Closer Look at Happiness
As the frenzied Christmas season ends and a New Year begins, this is a time of reflection. You may find yourself asking: Is it a Wonderful Life?
Mid-life and beyond, you have to come to realize that there will be goals you will not meet in this lifetime. You accept that you probably won’t get down to that “ideal” body weight. There are things you may have wanted very badly that you will not get. That’s why they call it a mid-life crisis. Also, This Boomer’s Life is often marked by loss, illness and caregiving.
And yet articles about Happiness (with a capital H) kept crossing my desk in recent months. On social media, on the TED talk channel, in my e-mail, in the news, I would see HAPPINESS in the subject line.
In my life, I have always looked at the glass half empty, always chasing the next better thing. I am prone to regrets over the brass ring I could not quite grasp. Fortunately, my husband of 35 years is relentlessly positive, and has always tended to see the glass half full. He would slip messages about Happiness into my e-mail. I finally got the hint. Ping!
Amidst the many missives on Happiness, one in particular resonated: It was a TED talk on YouTube by Physiatrist Robert J. Waldinger, the fourth director of a long-term study on happiness and human development that was launched in 1938 by Harvard University.
Dr. Waldinger has made it his mission to impart the findings of this study to the world. In his own words, “The government has invested millions of dollars in the research, so why keep it a secret?”
This study, the longest of its kind, followed two groups of young men: One group was comprised of students at Harvard University, the other from inner-city Boston–two very different groups with very different life experiences. Yet, as the results have proved over 75 years, the keys to happiness cut across these lines. According to Dr. Waldinger, here is the most important:
Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period.
Dr. Waldinger began by making a very interesting point. In surveying the Millennial Population (currently those in their 20s to early 40s) regarding what defines “happiness” for them, 80% said money and 50% said fame would be their goal. This is a generation encouraged to “Lean In” and to focus on work/career pursuits. We Boomers were there not so long ago. Did we feel any differently? It has been my observation that our generation seemed to pursue and even expect happiness. We didn’t as a whole accept a life only to be slogged through, a philosophy of life I observed in my parents and grandparents. So, what is it that makes a Wonderful Life, even as we may struggle?
The Harvard study reveals that “Leaning in” to relationships with family, friends and community were far, far more important to long-term happiness than either money or fame.
Throughout an entire life, it was close relationships and the quality of those relationships, including stable and supportive marriages that made for health and happiness. Long-term relationships can be challenging and they can be messy. They are not without bickering and differences of opinion. What is important is feeling you have someone to count on.
“Loneliness kills.” notes Dr. Waldinger. Yet at any given time, typically 1 in 5 people describe significant feelings of loneliness, often even in the company of others. The lesson here is clear: to seek out relationships not only within family, but in the larger community, whether through volunteering, Meet Up groups, church, or the Y. One of the benefits of our hyper-connected Internet world is an opportunity to find your people.
Other key findings of the study:
- A happy childhood with good parental and sibling relationships is one key to happiness, but those who had a difficult childhood can make up for it by creating positive relationships within their own family, with their children or via a mentoring relationship.
- Those who learn positive ways of coping with stress are happier and healthier. One positive strategy is taking action. Another is altruism: for example, an addict who helps counsel others through treatment gains a tangible benefit from these relationships. Yet another key is learning “sublimation,” which is putting out of your mind things you cannot change. On the opposite side, negative strategies that impact you and those around you include denial or acting out.
It is tempting to seek a quick fix in the pursuit of happiness, but in fact, relationships require work over the long run. Dr. Waldinger offers suggestions for small changes that can pave the way: Replace screen time with “people time.” Liven up a relationship with date nights, or just start by taking long walks. Consider reaching out to repair long-standing family feuds.
The good life is built on good relationships.
Dr. Waldinger ended his TED talk with a quote by Mark Twain, one that seems perfectly thought-provoking for the New Year:
“There isn’t time–so brief is life–for bickerings, heartburnings, apologies, callings to account. There is only time for loving, and but an instant, so to speak, for that.”
To read more about the happiness study and Dr. Waldinger:
And by the way, there are so many wonderful TED talks out there full of mind-sharpening ideas. Check them out at: