What do you think makes a good life? How many people in your workplace, family and community would say they're living a good life now?
In 1938, during the Great Depression, a group of researchers from Harvard wanted answers to those questions. What they discovered confirms what we all know to be true.
The Harvard Study of Adult Development has been tracking the well-being of 724 young men for the last 80 years. (Women weren't in the original study because the college was still all male.) The researchers' goal was to see if they could learn how to help others live a good life.
Two groups were selected to observe. One was healthy and wealthy Harvard sophomores, and the second cohort was a mixture of disadvantaged inner-city youths from poor Boston neighborhoods. The study is still running today and it included four members who ran for the U.S. Senate. One served in a Presidential Cabinet, and one was President John F. Kennedy.
Everyone who participated agreed to a wide range of interviews in their homes, questionnaires, physicals, and extensive physiological measurements every other year.
So what are the lessons learned after eight decades of following these lives?
Some people who started off wealthy ended up lonely and broke. While others that began their careers with almost no hope of success ended up living long and fulfilling lives. One researcher pointed out, "A glimpse of any one moment in a life can be deeply misleading."
They also discovered that life challenged everyone. One of the study's directors was Dr. George Vaillant. He spent 35 years looking at how people responded to life's trials and tribulations. Vaillant came up with what he considered the pillars of a long and happy life:
Altruism -- A commitment to others' well-being
Anticipation -- Creating a sense of a positive outcome, being optimistic
Suppression -- A conscious decision to postpone an impulse or decision
Sublimation -- Finding outlets and expressions for feelings that promote growth and good decisions
Humor -- Acquired through self-awareness
Many men developed those healthy pillars after living unhealthy ones for years...even decades. Some men never acquired those skills and made choices that derailed their careers and personal lives.
However, when all the research was analyzed over the last 80 years, one factor stood out high above all the others when it came to living a good life. Dr. Vaillant summed up his finding this way:
"The only thing that really matters in life are your relationships to other people. It's not intellectual brilliance or parental social class that leads to successful aging. Warm connections are necessary -- and if not found in a mother or father, they can come from siblings, uncles, friends, mentors. The men's relationships at age 47 predicted late-life adjustment better than any other variable. Good sibling relationships seem especially powerful; 93 percent of the men who were thriving at age 65 have been close to a brother or sister when younger."
Living a good life today and aging well in the future is not about how smart you are or how much money you make. The Harvard study and our own experience proves the key to living a good life is having strong relationships.
If you're ready to get better at living a good life in 2019 and beyond, I encourage you to create a weekly relationship plan and make time for the most important people in your world. It's not enough to say you're going to build better relationships this year. You actually have to create a plan and commit to putting names on your calendar.
Everyone benefits when relationships get better. We all suffer when they deteriorate.
I wrote an article you can use as a guide, "What's Your Relationship Plan?"