How to Have a Good Life: Lean In—to Your Relationships

I was stuck for a time when I was in my 20s. My career and dating possibilities were going nowhere, and I struggled with depression. I was far from home, but one day I talked to my father about all of this over the phone. Afterward, he sent me a long, thoughtful letter. He was then in his early 50s, and he wrote that, looking back over his own life, he was convinced that the most important thing for him had always been his relationships with family and friends.

I was surprised. Though I knew he cared deeply about our family, I’d never have guessed that friends mattered to him so much. Dad was reserved, self-contained (basically shy) and dedicated to his career. His wife had always been his best friend, and at the time it seemed to me that he had a lot of acquaintances and no real friends except my stepmother. That comment in his letter brought me up short, and I’ve often thought about it since when questioning my own priorities.

I was at least as shy as my father. I didn’t make friends easily, though I always had a few close relationships. My goal in life was to fall in love and get married. If I failed at that, I hoped to have a career in journalism. I took family and friends for granted. They were the bread of life—I’d have been lost without them—but even after my father’s letter, it didn’t occur to me that they could be the main course.

I was reminded of that recently when I watched a TED talk by psychiatrist Robert Waldinger, MD, a professor at Harvard Medical School who is also the director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development. He launched his presentation by noting that when millennials were asked in a survey about their life goals, more than 80 percent said they wanted to get rich, and 50 percent hoped to become famous.

Waldinger observed that today we’re constantly urged to lean in at work, to push harder and to achieve more. “We’re given the impression that these are the things we need to go after in order to have a good life,” he said. 

But if you study the choices people make and how things turn out for them over a whole lifetime, you come to a different conclusion. Waldinger described research that began compiling data in 1938 about the lives, ambitions, failures and successes of hundreds of men. Remarkably, more than 75 years later, about 60 individuals from the original group, most in their 90s, are alive and still participating.

The study demonstrated, Waldinger said, that good relationships are actually what make us happier. And healthier.

The men enlisted in the study included both promising Harvard students and boys from the poorest neighborhoods in Boston. For decades, researchers contacted them periodically to check on how they were doing, physically, mentally and emotionally. The investigators interviewed them, scanned their medical records and their brains, drew their blood and analyzed it. About 10 years ago, their wives were invited to become part of the research. (The women’s reaction to the invitation? “It’s about time.”)

These are Waldinger’s conclusions about relationships: 

  • If you’re strongly connected to family, friends and community, you’ll be happier, physically healthier and you’ll even live longer. Loneliness kills, and at any given time, more than one in five Americans report that they’re lonely. He noted that you can be lonely in a crowd or a marriage.

  • The quality of your close relationships matters a great deal. A high-conflict marriage is bad for your health, while a good marriage protects it. In fact, the study’s most happily married participants reported, when they were in their 80s, that they felt happy even on days when they were in physical pain. That wasn’t true of those who were unhappily partnered.

  • Good relationships also protect your brain. Your memory will stay sharper for longer if, in your 80s, you have “a securely attached relationship” with someone you feel you can count on in times of need. Conversely, if you’re attached to an individual you feel you can’t count on, you’re more likely to develop problems with your memory at an earlier age.

Waldinger conceded that his message about the importance of relationships is as old as the hills (my father had certainly figured it out). And yet many people believe they’d be better off getting rich or dedicating themselves to their careers. Why don’t we know better?

Because we’re human, Waldinger said. “What we’d really like is a quick fix…Relationships are messy and they’re complicated and the hard work of tending to family and friends, it’s not sexy or glamorous. It’s also lifelong. It never ends.”

It threw me at first when Waldinger said the way to stay sharp mentally in your 80s is to be in a “securely attached relationship” with someone you can count on. I’m a widow and I’m over 80. But on second thought, I know I can count on my kids and my friends. During my husband’s last illness, they came through for us in ways that dispelled any doubts I might have had about that.

Unlike the millennials Waldinger mentioned, I’ve never hoped for fortune or fame. I did have my ambitions as a writer, but life in general, and family in particular, kept getting in the way—or that’s how I sometimes thought of it. Looking back now, as my father did, I can see that I was putting the cart before the horse.

The older I get, the more my close relationships matter to me. I’m glad now that my ambitions never managed to get in the way of strong connections to family and friends.