What makes a good life?

“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 energy?” So begins a TED talk on the world’s longest happiness study. The answer is clear, but not easy.

In his brilliant book and podcast Good Life Project, Jonathan Fields interviews inspiring, successful and interesting entrepreneurs about their lives, businesses and how they define ‘a good life’.

And in a more analytical approach, psychiatrist Robert Waldinger leads a happiness study that has been running for 75 years!

So, what does make you happier and healthier for longer?

What the world tells us

In his TED Talk, Waldinger quotes a survey where 80% of millennials said a major life goal for them was to get rich, and another 50% to become famous.

In business and work, the prevailing wisdom is to lean in to work, push harder and achieve more, more, more. Social media in particular reinforces the notion that success is measured by our homes, abdominals, holidays, achievements and pay packets.

While rationally most us know this is not the case, when we examine how we choose to prioritise our time and energy, actions can speak louder than words.

What the research says

The Harvard Study of Adult Development has followed the lives of 724 men for 75 years, with in-depth interviews, scans, tests and medical records tracking their work, home lives, happiness and health.

“Just like the millennials, many of our men when they were starting out as young adults really believed that fame and wealth and high achievement were what they needed to go after to have a good life.”

However, the key lessons are not about wealth or fame or working harder and harder.

“The clearest message that we get from this 75-year study is this: Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period.

They identified three big lessons about relationships.

  1. Loneliness is toxic. People who are more socially connected to family, friends and community, are happier, healthier and live longer.
  2. Conflict is damaging. It’s not how many friends you have, or even if you’re in a committed relationship, it’s the quality of your close relationships that matters. You can be lonely in a crowd, or a bad marriage.
  3. Secure relationships protect our brains. If you are surrounded by people you can count on in time of need, your mind and memory stay sharper.

“Over these 75 years, our study has shown that the people who fared the best were the people who leaned in to relationships, with family, with friends, with community.”

What the big guns say

At the end of every Good Life Project episode, Johnathan asks his expert subjects what a good life means to them. Here’s a collection of responses:

Seth Godin: “The most important thing is that it means you get to decide what good is. And if you are living somebody else’s good life, you are making a huge mistake.”

Michael Port: “For me it’s peacefulness. I just want to lay my head down at night and feel peaceful.”

AJ & Melissa Leon: “Not living the life that everyone else intended for you. Being deliberate about the way that you live your life.”

Vernon Bush: “Living with passion.”

Brene Brown: “Gratitude. A good life happens when you stop, and are grateful for the ordinary moments that so many of us just steamroll over, to try and find those extraordinary moments.”

Wokie Nwabueze: “To be aware of your life… and what’s important.”

Tami Simon: “Heartful connection, heartful contribution and service.”

Patricia Moreno: “To live a life that has love and connection.”

Lewis Howes: “Becoming the best version of myself.”

Dan Pink: “Do something that I find meaningful, that I inherently enjoy … and makes a bit of a contribution to the world.”

Emiliya Zhivotovskaya: “Feel at peace with your past and optimistic about the future.”

Erik Napolitano: “Being exactly who I am. Maybe along the way I’ll have helped a few people feel the same way. I think that’s a pretty good life.”

A good life is an intentional life, built on relationships.

Connection, relationships, gratitude, meaning, authenticity, passion and living intentionally come through in all these interviews.

And it’s no surprise that when the subjects talk about their work and businesses, there is a clear alignment between these aspirations and their professional life.

Waldinger closes his talk with a sentimental quote from Mark Twain more than a century ago:

“There isn’t time, so brief is life, for bickerings, apologies, heartburnings, callings to account. There is only time for loving, and but an instant, so to speak, for that.”

The good life is built with good relationships.

How do you measure a life well lived?