science & psychology

The Key to a Good Life is Not What You Think

key to a good life - good relationships

The Key to a Good Life

A unique longitudinal study designed and run by the Harvard Medical School has reported fascinating results on the key to a good life. What the study reveals in the area of happiness and well-being may lead to a revolutionary new understanding of how we can best live “the good life”. The results, so far, are clear and startling.

The strongest indicator of a happy, healthy long good life seems to be having good, high-quality close relationships. Equally, conflict-ridden, hostile and unloving relationships were found to be actively toxic. For these men in the study and associated with a shorter and less healthy life. The strongest predictor for how a man would age into his eighties seems to be how happy he is with his closest relationship when he is fifty.

Watch Robert Waldinger’s TED talk about the study. He is the current director of the Grant study and a Harvard psychologist. He has also published a book about the study.


75 years and four directors

The 75 year-long ‘Study of Adult Development’, currently directed by psychiatrist Robert Waldinger, follows the lives of 724 American men. It asks for their views on happiness and records the details of their lives as they unfold. The study has gone through generations of researchers. Waldinger is the fourth director so far.

There are 60 subjects of the original groups of children still alive. Their children and grandchildren are now participants in the study. The initial two groups chosen were vastly different from each other. One group came from the prestigious halls of Harvard. While the other group was chosen from troubled teenagers in Boston. The subjects are studied physically and also questioned on their feelings. Blood tests and brain scans are among some of the other objective data gathered.

Unpicking the research

The study has found strong links between the amount of satisfaction men reported within their primary relationship, and their levels of well-being, healthiness, and even length of life. This link held true across economic difference,  social strata and health conditions. It even showed links across differing levels of professional success. Even though some of the men in the study had led entirely unremarkable working lives. While in another group one of the members went on to become President.

Happily partnered men reported – in their 80ies – that on the days they had more physical pain, their mood stayed just the same.

The results sound, initially, frighteningly unachievable for most of us. A counsel of perfection requiring an unattainable level of harmony in relationships. But the researchers found that having a good, secure, close relationship did not mean having a perfect and conflict-free partnership. Many of the men who reported themselves as content with their relationship also reported many arguments. But crucially felt that they could whole-heartedly rely on their partner to be on their side when it was truly important. Despite superficial daily conflict, the sense that a partner “has your back” seems to be key to that sense of solidity in a relationship. From there the protective benefits seem to stem.

Putting it into practice as a key to a good life

So, is this disastrous for those who are alone? Perhaps widowed in later life, or in the aftermath the of divorce? Will their existing bad luck grow due to poor health and a shortened life span? The study appeared to find not. Good, close relationships of any kind added to the chances of a positive outcome. Whether these relationships were with family or close friends. The security of the attachment seems to matter more than the nature of the relationships. The sense of connectedness to a trusted other being the key factor.

For those men in the study without a close connection to anyone, health and happiness outcomes were significantly poorer. It seems that loneliness is more than just extremely unpleasant. It appears to be actively toxic. A conclusion that requires thoughtful consideration on a societal level, not just a personal one. Despite the received perception that work is the fount of self-esteem and contentment. This study clearly shows that our focus should be on what goes on in the home, rather than the workplace.

So what’s the key to a good life?

Conclusions drawn from this study point to a clear direction of travel for those of us who want to build a happier and healthier future. One that will take us into later age still content and with a sense of well-being. The time we spend on our close relationships now – even in the midst of our busy lives – focusing on work and external considerations, may appear to be a luxury. It is increasingly becoming clear that the emphasis on making and preserving strong relationships builds the foundations of happiness later on.

Taking time to switch off from the trivial day to day distractions to focus on the people in our lives who form our support system may prove to be the single most important step we can take for our health, longevity, and happiness.


Image source: TED on


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