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  • Writer's pictureTo Your Health Editorial Staff

What makes a good, happy life?

Dr Robert Waldinger's TED Talk has been viewed over 33 million times, probably because it has a very definitive answer to a question we've all, at some point, pondered: what makes a good life?

His answer is derived from many, and I mean many, years of research. You see, the renowned psychiatrist is the director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, which is one of — if not the — longest study of humans (READ: men) ever conducted.

Let me give you the abridged version: Starting in 1938, the study tracked hundreds of men — some privileged, others not — for 80 years in a bid to work out what made them thrive, what made them successful, what made them happy. Every few years researchers would ask the men about their goals and aspirations, their marriages, work life, social activities, and they'd also monitor their physical health.

"Our biggest finding, and the one that surprised us the most, was that the happiest people were the people who had good close relationships with other people," says Dr Waldinger.

Other people, you say? And here I was thinking that if I just attained enough wealth, if I just attained enough social status, if I just read The Art of Happiness by His Holiness and former Masterchef guest judge (true story!) the Dalai Lama, if I just self-actualised, if I just followed my dream, if I just meditated more, if I just got rid of my possessions, if I just burnt all my hair in ritual sacrifice to the Sun God… if I just did all of these things then I'd be happy, not realising that my happiness might not actually be about me, me, me.

"One of the things we found is that feeling like there are people in the world who really have your back, who will be your safety net, that matters a whole lot for not just happiness, but for health," says Dr Waldinger.

    "The good life is built with good relationships. Period."

But what does it mean to have "good relationships"?

Well, you're going to roll your eyes at me because it's a cliche, but the key to strong, healthy and prosperous relationships comes down to one thing: good communication, and not just when things are going badly but always.

Elisabeth Shaw from Relationships Australia says having a safe space to voice your concerns and be heard will strengthen your relationship with your partner, friend, mother, cousin thrice removed.

She says that during stressful times (such as, say, global pandemics that threaten national economic collapse) challenging situations will arise more often.

Her tip? Speak up.

"When the cracks start to appear, it's really important to get onto the front foot and address things as they arise. In doing so, you start to build resilience. You increase your capacity to survive this together in good shape," says Ms Shaw.

    Dr Waldinger agrees: "When we have to hold a lot in, the relationship grows more distant and then it can either end in angry outbursts or it can just kind of wither and die."

But what if you're not really comfortable with speaking directly to your loved ones? What if you'd prefer to avoid emotional confrontations?

Ms Shaw says own it!

"If you say, 'Look, I know this feels a bit clunky. It's not like us, but I really want to talk about how I'm feeling', then usually that's [a] kind of opening, everyone relaxes.

"They could maybe laugh with you and it's a kind of warm way in which to be able to talk about some new things and in new ways."

Dr Waldinger says one of the most important things we can do is invest in our relationships.

He says doing this will pay dividends well into the future and he's got the study to prove it: "The strongest predictor of who was going to be a happy, healthy 80-year-old was having good relationships in your 50s."

There's no time like the present.

No seriously, there has been no time in recent memory where we've been forced to spend more time with ourselves; what better time to be reminded that it's others who will ultimately make us happy.

Article from ABC Life

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