Wednesday, February 24, 2016
If you ask people “What makes a good life?”, the answers will be varied. There will be differences based on all sorts of things, like age, class, race, religious views, political ideology—the list is endless. But if we put all those particular viewpoints to one side, we all know what the correct answer is.
The video above (shared on Facebook yesterday by an old friend) is of a TEDx Talk given by psychiatrist Robert Waldinger, who’s the director of the longest longitudinal life study ever done. For 75 years, Harvard has studied the adult development of men (and, later, women). All those decades of data have given them a unique opportunity to work out what it takes to have a fulfilling and long life.
This isn’t a spoiler, because we all know the answer: Relationships.
The study found that loneliness is toxic, producing worse outcomes and shorter lives. On the other hand, those who have good relationships with other people—family and community—are those who do the best for the longest.
This has been solid advice for millennia, and it’s something we all know to be true without even having to think about it. So, it’s kind of astounding that we need a Harvard psychiatrist to point out the obvious. But, as he says in the talk, we all want a quick fix to make us happy, and relationships are both time consuming and a lot of work.
Clearly, they’re worth it.
This has implications for making the world a better place, as most of us want to do. It begins with recognising we’re all connected, one way or another, and that even our adversaries should never be dehumanised: That road leads to fights and wars, and serves no one well, least of all ourselves. Relationships are just as critical for moving society forward to one that’s more just and fair as they are for our own wellbeing.
Harvey Milk used to talk of the “us-es”, and he was right. When we treat those we disagree with as being just “them” or “those people” human connection and relationship is impossible. As I often say, hatred is easy in the third person, much harder in the second, and almost impossible in the first.
What makes a good life? We all do—together.