The Good Life

From The Wall Street Journal:

What constitutes a life well-lived? What are the ingredients for lasting happiness? In their captivating book “The Good Life: Lessons From the World’s Longest Scientific Study of Happiness,” the psychiatrist Robert Waldinger and the clinical psychologist Marc Schulz convey key lessons that arise from studying the lifetimes of hundreds of individuals across the 20th and 21st centuries. The major lesson is the overriding importance of positive interpersonal relationships throughout the lifespan.

Dr. Waldinger teaches at Harvard Medical School; Mr. Schulz at Bryn Mawr. They are the current directors of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, an investigation now in its 85th year of data collection. The study began as two independent longitudinal projects, one comprising 268 Harvard sophomores deemed likely to flourish later in life and the other consisting of 456 14-year-old boys growing up in Boston’s most disadvantaged neighborhoods. The purpose of both studies, long since merged, was to identify predictors of health, happiness and flourishing in young adulthood and beyond.

At the outset, the Harvard investigators interviewed participants and their parents and conducted a medical examination of each participant. Although most original members are now deceased, their wives and offspring have been recruited as additional participants. The current protocol asks members to complete a comprehensive questionnaire every two years, authorize disclosure of medical records every five years and agree to a face-to-face interview every 15 years. Questions span every aspect of their lives such as family, employment, mental and physical health, and their views on life, politics and religion. Each assessment point provides a comprehensive snapshot of the participant’s life, and, taken together, the data furnish rich portraits of lives as they unfold over time.

“The Good Life” is not a comprehensive scholarly exposition of the Harvard study. Rather, the authors aim to provide practical wisdom regarding the pursuit of happiness arising from their project. Social fitness, as the authors put it, is the key to mental health, physical health and longevity. Developing skills that enable one to cultivate and maintain positive connections to other people is as least as important as proper nutrition, physical exercise, adequate sleep and the avoidance of harmful habits such as smoking. Yet it is easy to take these relationships for granted in today’s individualistic and hypercompetitive societies.

An important part of social fitness is cognitive flexibility, exemplified by the capacity to see the world through another person’s eyes, to express empathic understanding and to attend fully to others. The authors note how technologies like smartphones and social media seize our attention and keep us from attending to loved ones, to their detriment and ours. They also emphasize the importance of positive relationships in the workplace as well as the upticks in one’s mood prompted by brief, positive interactions with strangers.

Learning interpersonal and emotional skills has become increasingly important in view of the epidemic of loneliness accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic and the attendant remote work and schooling. Loneliness is not solitude; it is perceived social isolation. People suffering the pain of loneliness are experiencing less positive social contact than they would like. Extroverts favor more social interaction and introverts favor less. But voluntary hermits are rare.

Throughout the book, Dr. Waldinger and Mr. Schulz insightfully narrate episodes from the struggles, failures and triumphs of their participants. One section introduces a man called Neal, whose mother struggled with alcoholism and who found himself helping a daughter who did the same. “Can I get your professional opinion?” Neal at one point asked an interviewer. “Is there anything more I can do for her? Do you think I’ve done something wrong?” The authors illustrate their theme of social connection by praising the way Neal and his wife dealt with their daughter: “Sometimes they had to step back, sometimes they had to step in. But they never turned away.” Elsewhere, they show how children growing up in seriously troubled families can nevertheless flourish if they have at least one positive relationship with an adult, such as a teacher or coach.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

4 thoughts on “The Good Life”

  1. If Mark Shultz has a PhD, he should also be referred to as Dr. Shultz in this article, and is not. Very elitist of the WSJ to make their decisions that way, when the rest of the world doesn’t.

    I believe Dr. Biden had to face the same kind of garbage. I know I had to deal extensively with the presumption at PPPL that any female on the phone was someone’s secretary. Grow up, people.

    • Alicia, my AP Style Book (which, admittedly, may be dated – it’s from the middle of the last decade) says:

      Use Dr. in first reference as a formal title before the name of an individual who holds a doctor of dental surgery, doctor of medicine, doctor of optometry, doctor of osteopathic medicine, doctor of podiatric medicine, or doctor of veterinary medicine: Dr. Jonas Salk.

      If this is still the prescribed style for use by journalists – WSJ is not the organization being “elitist.”
      (My AP does say, further down, that when addressing, not identifying, a person with any doctorate – as in speaking to them or writing a letter – it is proper to use “Doctor” there. So, if I were to ever meet President Biden’s spouse in person, I would be incorrect to call her “Mrs. Biden.” Not that I ever expect to have that dubious honor, mind you.)

      • Their ‘style’ needs updating. It is incorrect.

        And probably sexist, as it was usually assumed that a person calling who was male, even if not using their title, was one of the scientists.

    • But the rest of the world does. It generally refers to medical people as doctor. Jill Biden might not like it. OK.

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