What makes a good life?

September 7, 2021 • 1:00 pm

I usually avoid TED talks because they smack too much of motivational speech: like the advice of Matt Foley, who lives in a van down by the river and eats government cheese. But this one popped up when I was watching YouTube, and, listening to the introduction, I was drawn into it.

The speaker, Robert Waldinger, is director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, a project that’s been going on for 75 years.  The researchers studied 724 men over that period, asking them how they were doing and what they were doing every two years until the men died. They also did personal interviews, got medical records, and even drew the subjects’ blood.

There were two groups in the original study that’s ongoing since the 1930s: Harvard sophomores and the “control” group of boys who came from troubled and disadvantaged families in poor parts of Boston.

60 of the original 724 men are still alive, and now their children are being studied as well: 2000 more. Women have been added at last.  This represents an unparalleled study of what factors make for a happy and healthy life.

The answer, which may seem anodyne to you, nevertheless contradicts the Millennial answer Waldinger describes, which is the view that having fame and money make for a good life. (“A good life” is one in which the person lives it is both healthy and happy and lives a long time.) I’ll let you listen to the video for yourself.

I think this 13-minute talk is worth hearing, both for your own well being and, perhaps, to help other people. But maybe you’ll see it as obvious and trite.

By the way, Waldinger is a psychiatrist and (disappointingly to me) a psychoanalyst and is also a Zen priest.

24 thoughts on “What makes a good life?

  1. When it is all said and done, what is the definition of a Good Life? Your idea of the answer may be the best way to judge if you have it. I agree that humans are social animals but there is a big variety on this scale. In other words, if you are a really social person, this trait will mean much more to you than to a pretty introverted person. How important is money to the good life. Probably more than most people will admit. How important is your job? Again it can be quite different from one person to the next. I think one thing that can make a big difference from one person to the next is comfort in retirement. If you have retired without much of any pension then how much were you able to save. Today the majority of people do not have pensions but 50 or 100 years ago they did. Makes a hell of a difference. Lots of people today are scared to death of retirement because they do not know how they are going to continue without a job and income. To other people their job is everything. There are so many differences in people I think it is impossible to do a study that really shows any results. The sooner you can determine for yourself, what makes a good life the more likely you are to get there.

    1. Well, I was hoping that this would give some tips in case “determining for yourself” what a good life is, which for many Millennials would be money and fame, might not work out all that well for your happiness when you’re older.

      The study showed results. Whether you like them or not, it did have results.

      1. Well, maybe I missed that part. I heard over and over that maintaining lots of relationships inside the family and out was the key. But I did not hear a definition of “What is a good life”. If it is simply maintaining relationships then I don’t know. And I am not sure that all would agree that is it.

      2. I’d think of money and fame, especially money, being a more Boomerish definition of success, or at least not a paritcularly Millennialist.

    2. Money is VERY important up to a point (to the basic requirements of life and a tad more to impress people) but after a certain point (psychologists have nailed it down to $70k-ish a year) it is very much a case of diminishing returns.
      A LACK of money can be immiserating, but a big bunch of it doesn’t do much for happiness.

      There’s a lot of social science on the research of happiness where personal connections are extremely important. In more recent years the academy has discovered how horrible loneliness is to the body and mind.

      ps getting a puppy is a GREAT idea. Witnesseth: https://whyevolutionistrue.com/2020/06/10/photos-of-readers-93/ 🙂

  2. I’m glad to hear that bickering is OK. After 55 years together my wife and I each hold black belts in bickering. (Smiley face)

    1. For a while, back in the day, my siblings would refer my and my wife’s house and my parents’ house, respectively, as the Eastern and Western Fronts. 🙂

      1. “who lives in a van down by the river and eats government cheese” sounds like it comes from a lost Woody Guthrie song of the depression.

  3. Call me an old curmudgeon but I’m always suspicious of findings which promote relationships, love etc. as leading to the good life. It may well be true for many people… but human variation being what it is there may be a section of people for who ‘good relationships’ are not the primary source of ‘the good life’.

    What are the proportions in other ‘honour’ related communities? Or abusive relationships? Or religious communities? Different personality types? I don’t know but I rather suspect one size does not fit all.

  4. Finding a partner and raising your offspring with what you see as decent values? (From an evolutionary point of view, I can’t imagine an alternative, but am willing to be educated.) Naturally, the latter part is a work in progress, although kids today seem to be far more sensible than I was at their age (or indeed, now).

    Given the heaviness of the average footprint of western Europeans (and the West more generally) on the Earth, “what makes a good life” will likely have to be less materialistic than in the past hundred years or so. That may well be a good thing.

    1. Having children is a very heavy footprint. I’m very happy that I don’t have children and am therefore contributing less to the overpopulation of the World than many of my contemporaries.

  5. To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and hear the lamentations of their women. Oh sorry, I thought the question was, what is best in life?

  6. Regarding “bickering”: my mother (“a force of nature” going on 88 who is cognitively sharp as ever) recently reflected on her aunt’s and aunt’s husband’s (a state judge) predilection for bickering/fussing/arguing. It was common knowledge among the extended clan. (He once shut and locked the bedroom door to get away from and not have to talk to her. She retaliated by pouring a pot of water under the door into the room. Of course, no one would have known had one or both of them not told on the other.) When they wanted to go on a car trip for several days, they themselves knowing how predisposed they were to bickering, they made it a point to invite one or two others along so that they would be forced to behave themselves. My mother hypothesized that that was why they invited her on a several-day trip when she was middle school-aged.

    A poet laureate of Tennessee, Richard “Peck” Gunn, speaking of visiting his old home place with its kitchen red-and-white checkerboard tablecloth and other objects of childhood memory, said in a poem, “Nag me so I’ll feel at home.” I don’t see how a couple could much bicker unless they somehow genuinely enjoyed it. Not me – I had more than my share of hearing assinine, fatuous bickering in my clan. As Kahlil Gibran reflected, “Let there be spaces in your togetherness.” Or, as the elderly rebbe in “Fiddler on the Roof” replied to the rabbinical students when asked, “Is there a proper blessing for the Czar?” replied, “May God bless and keep the Czar – far away from us!”

    I’m also reminded of JFK’s often reflecting on the ancient Greeks’ definition of happiness: “The full use of one’s powers along lines of excellence (with scope).”

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