Relationships and “The Good Life”

January 28, 2023

De Pree Journal

“If you had to make one life choice, right now, to set yourself on the path to future health and happiness, what would it be?”

So, how would you answer that question? What one choice could you make right now that would point you in the direction of a fruitful and fulfilling life?

That opening question is not mine, though it’s one I’ve spent a lot of time mulling over. That particular question was asked by Robert Waldinger and Marc Schulz at the very beginning of their recent book, The Good Life: Lessons from the World’s Longest Scientific Study of Happiness. The book presents their answer to the “one life choice” question, one they recommend to you and me as we seek to experience “the good life.”

As you can tell from the subtitle of The Good Life, Waldinger and Schulz aren’t just two guys with some clever ideas about how to live well. Rather, they are drawing lessons for us from “the world’s longest scientific study of happiness.” They are the directors of this study, which is known as The Harvard Study of Adult Development. For 85 years researchers at Harvard have been working on the question of how to live the good life. Their research has focused on the lived experience of hundreds and hundreds of people. So Waldinger and Schulz are not presenting their pet theories. Rather, they’re sharing with us what their in-depth psychological research has found to be true about being healthy and happy.

The Good Life and Third Third Flourishing
I became familiar with Waldinger, Schulz, and their scientific study through my research into the third third of life. About four years ago, the De Pree Center began a new initiative called Flourishing in the Third Third of Life. As the person responsible for this initiative, I began spending hundreds of hours doing research into a wide variety of relevant fields, including biblical theology, gerontology, psychology, sociology, and neuroscience. Soon, I discovered a book with an intriguing title: Aging Well: Surprising Guideposts to a Happier Life from the Landmark Study of Adult Development, by George Vaillant.

That book introduced me to The Harvard Study of Adult Development, of which Vaillant had been the director for thirty years. Vaillant laid out in a detailed but popular form the study’s unexpected wisdom about what leads to a flourishing life. Later, I discovered that this wisdom was succinctly and compellingly presented by Robert Waldinger, the current director of the Harvard Study, following Vaillant, in a TED talk entitled, “What makes a good life? Lessons from the longest study on happiness.” That talk, now with over 44 million views, lays out key insights that are now captured and elaborated upon in the book Waldinger wrote with his fellow director Marc Schulz, The Good Life.

In my Flourishing in the Third Third of Life work, I draw generously from the results of the Harvard Study of Adult Development. That study, begun in 1938, has for almost a century worked on the question: What keeps us healthy and happy as we go through life? In particular, the study’s researchers wondered: If people turn out to be healthy and happy when they’re 80, what was going on in their lives when they were 50 that would predict such a positive outcome? In their own way, the folks of the Harvard study were asking the question I’m asking in my language: What contributes to flourishing in the third third of life? The Harvard Study hits the center of my target.

Relationships and the Good Life
As I noted above, Waldinger and Schulz begin The Good Life with a simple but telling question: “If you had to make one life choice, right now, to set yourself on the path to future health and happiness, what would it be?” (p. 1). After considering several possible answers, including making plenty of money, becoming famous, and traveling often, The Good Life reveals the main conclusion from the Harvard Study. Here it is:

Contrary to what many people might think, it’s not career achievement, or exercise, or a healthy diet. Don’t get us wrong; these things matter (a lot). But one thing continuously demonstrates its broad and enduring importance:

Good relationships.

In fact, good relationships are significant enough that if we had to take all eighty-four years of the Harvard Study and boil it down to a single principle for living, one life investment that is supported by similar findings across a wide variety of other studies, it would be this:

Good relationships keep us healthier and happier. Period.

So if you’re going to make that one choice, that single decision that could best ensure your own health and happiness, science tells us that your choice should be to cultivate warm relationships. Of all kinds. As we’ll show you, it’s not a choice that you make only once, but over and over again, second by second, week by week, and year by year (p. 10).

That’s what the rest of The Good Life does. It shows us how we can choose, again and again and again, to develop and nurture relationships that keep us healthier and happier. These “warm relationships” are ones with which we are familiar: deep friendships, healthy marriages, parent-child relationships, grandparent-grandchild relationships, partnerships with key colleagues, and so forth.

Why Should I Cultivate Warm Relationships?
I realize that what I’ve just quoted and written might sound rather self-centered. Should I really be developing relationships with others mainly for my own health and happiness? No. Of course not. If this is the main thing motivating your relationships, odds are your relationships won’t be all that great, anyway. Self-centeredness isn’t a good basis on which to build the quality of relationships that help us to flourish.

But the fact that relationships are so important may get our attention. Moreover, this insight may lead us to invest in our lives differently, which will enhance not only our own flourishing but also the flourishing of others. If, for example, you work to build a deeper friendship with someone, that person will benefit as well as you. The benefits of good relationships are mutual.

Nevertheless, this “ends justify the means” talk about relationships only takes us so far. A better answer to the “Why should I cultivate warm relationships?” question points to the very nature of human life. We are fundamentally relational beings. We get this from various academic disciplines, including psychology, sociology, anthropology, literature, and philosophy. Most importantly, we get this from Scripture.

The first chapter of the Bible reveals that human beings were created in relationship as male and female, thus reflecting the image of a relational God (Gen 1:27). Human beings in relationship were given the task of working together to make the world fruitful and full (Gen 1:28). The last chapter of the Bible shows us that those who worship God together will also “reign forever and ever” in relationship with God and each other (Rev 22:5). The 1,187 chapters in between Genesis 1 and Revelation 22 consistently underscore the importance of relationships, not to mention how messy they can become and how much we need God’s help to make them right.

Can’t Do It Alone
Those of us whose understanding of life has been shaped by Scripture, therefore, will not be
shocked by the findings of the Harvard Study. Good relationships with God and people do indeed keep us healthier and happier. Good relationships are essential for human flourishing, not only for those of us in the third third of life, but also for all of us, from our first day on earth until our last. If we want to flourish in life, we can’t do it alone.

This theme – Can’t do it alone – is a thread running through all of the work of the De Pree Center. Yes, it’s central to what I’m doing with third third flourishing. But you’ll find us emphasizing the importance of relationships throughout our work, in Road Ahead cohorts, Life for Leaders devotions, Alongside mentoring classes, Michaela O’Donnell’s Make Work Matter book, Adaptive Church cohorts, Third Third Flourishing course, and so much more. Across the board, the De Pree Center exists to help leaders live and work in a distinctively Christian way in all seasons of life. One of the core distinctives of living and leading as a Christian is doing so in relationship with God and God’s people.

Twenty years ago, my first “popular” book was published. It was called After “I Believe.” I began that book by asking: What really is the Christian life? Based on a close reading of the first chapter of 1 John and many other biblical passages, I claimed that the Christian life is, at its core, “intimate fellowship with God and God’s people.” Were I to rewrite that book today, I might add that the Christian life is “intimate fellowship with God and God’s people for the sake of the world.” Or something like that, anyway. Nevertheless, twenty years later, I would still affirm that living and leading as a Christian is something we do through relationships, through intimate fellowship with God and the people of God. Or, to put it more memorably, when it comes to living and leading as a Christian, you can’t do it alone.

Banner image by RODNAE Productions from Pexels.

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