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What Makes A Good Life? – The Coaching Room

What makes a good life? Lessons from the longest study on happiness | Robert Waldinger

The following article is derived from the accompanying video. It is provided as an additional resource for your reading convenience


In this TedX talk, psychiatrist Robert Waldinger shares three important lessons he learned as the director of 75-year-old study on adult development.

Waldinger poses the question, “What keeps us healthy and happy as we go through life?  If you were going to invest now in your future best self where would you put your time and your energy?  There was a recent survey of Millennials asking them what their most important life goals were and over 80% said that a major life goal for them was to get rich, and another 50% of those same young adults said that another major life goal was to become famous.”


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“We’re constantly told to lean in to work to push harder and achieve more.  We’re given the impression that these are the things that we need to go after in order to have a good life. Pictures of entire lives of the choices that people make and how those choices work out for them. Those pictures are almost impossible to get.  Most of what we know about human life we know from asking people to remember the past and as we know hindsight is anything but 20/20 we forget vast amounts of what happens to us in life and sometimes memory is downright creative”, Waldinger explains.

“We’ve learned three big lessons about relationships.  The first is that social connections are really good for us and that loneliness kills. It turns out that people who are more socially connected to family,  to friends,  to community are happier.  They’re physically healthier and they live longer than people who are less well-connected. The experience of loneliness turns out to be toxic.  People who are more isolated than they want to be from others find that they are less happy.  Their health declines earlier in midlife, their brain functioning declined sooner and they live shorter lives than people who are not lonely”, Waldinger tells his TedX audience.


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Waldinger continues by saying, “The sad fact is that at any given time more than one in five Americans will report that they’re lonely and we know that you can be lonely in a crowd and you can be lonely in a marriage. So the second big lesson that we learned is that it’s not just the number of friends you have and it’s not whether or not you’re in a committed relationship but it’s the quality of your close relationships that matters. It turns out that living in the midst of conflict is really bad for our health. High conflict marriages for example without much affection turn out to be very bad for our health, perhaps worse than getting divorced.”

“Living in the midst of good warm relationships is protective.  Once we had followed our men all the way into their 80s we want to look back at them at midlife and to see if we could predict who was going to grow into a happy healthy octogenarian and who wasn’t. When we gathered together everything we knew about them at age 50  it wasn’t their middle-age cholesterol levels that predicted how they were going to grow old it was how satisfied they were in their relationships. The people who were the most satisfied in their relationships at age 50 were the healthiest at age 80 and good close relationships seemed to buffer us from some of the slings and arrows of getting old.

Our most happily partnered men and women reported in their 80s that on the days they had more physical pain their moods stayed just as happy but the people who were in unhappy relationships on the days when they reported more physical pain it was magnified by more emotional pain.”, Waldinger details.

“The third big lesson that we learn about relationships on our health is that good relationships don’t just protect our bodies they protect our brains.  It turns out that being in a securely attached relationship to another person in your 80s is protective, that the people who are in relationships where they really feel they can count on the other person in times of need.  Those people’s memories stay sharper longer than the people in relationships where they feel they really can’t count on the other one.  Those are the people who experienced earlier memory decline. Those good relationships they don’t have to be smooth all the time, some of our octogenarian couples could bicker with each other day in and day out but as long as they felt that they could really count on the other when the going got tough those arguments didn’t take a toll on their memories”, Waldinger says.

Waldinger ends his TedX talk by saying, “So this message that good close relationships are good for our health and well-being, this is wisdom that’s as old as the hills.  Why is this so hard to get and so easy to ignore, well we’re human.  What we’d really like is a quick fix, something we can get that’ll make our lives good and keep them that way. Relationships are messy and they’re complicated and the the hard work of tending to family and friends that’s not sexy or glamorous. It’s also lifelong it never ends.  The people in our 75 year study who were the happiest in retirement were the people who had actively worked to replace workmates with new playmates. These 75 years our study has shown that the people who fared the best were the people who leaned into relationships with family, with friends, with community.”


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Robert Waldinger is an American psychiatrist and Professor at Harvard Medical School.


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