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What makes a good life?
What do a former US president, a bricklayer and a person living with schizophrenia all have in common?
This, funnily enough, is not a joke, but a real-life experiment tracking 724 men from the United States and all walks of life, year after year, since 1938!
The point? To understand what keeps people happy and healthy as they go through life — from their teenage years right through to old age using the same respondents.
Through a combination of luck and persistence of several generations of researchers, the study has survived and the scrutinising of entire lives as they unfold through time was made possible. Covering aspects such as health, home life and work, the exceedingly rare research takes place without knowing how respondents’ own life stories are (or were) going to turn out, and is based on real-time happenings as opposed to (sometimes inaccurate) memories of the past.
Old news and eternal truths
The results were shared at a 2015 TEDx event in Massachusetts, and although they may appear a little outdated four years on, they could not actually be more ‘old and new’ at the same time…
So if you think the response to the big question What makes a good life? is fame and money, you are not alone! A separate recent survey of ‘millennials’ showed just that. But according to psychiatrist and director of this 79-year-old adult development Harvard study, Robert Waldinger, you could not be more mistaken.
Thanks to unprecedented access to data (from written questionnaires; telephone interviews; medical records; blood tests; brain scans; conversations with the children and extremely patient wives!) on true happiness and satisfaction, Waldinger shares in his talk three important lessons learned from the study. He includes too some practical, old-as-the-hills wisdom on how to build a meaningful and fulfilling, long life.
Lesson 1: Social connections are really good for us. Loneliness kills.
“It turns out that people who are more socially connected to family, to friends, to community, are happier, they’re physically healthier, says Waldinger, “and they live longer than people who are less well connected. And the experience of loneliness turns out to be toxic. People who are more isolated than they want to be from others find that they are less happy, their health declines earlier in midlife, their brain functioning declines sooner and they live shorter lives than people who are not lonely. And the sad fact is that at any given time, more than one in five Americans will report that they’re lonely.”
Lesson 2: It’s not the number of friends, but the quality of your close relationships that matters.
“(…) we know that you can be lonely in a crowd,” Waldinger continues, “and you can be lonely in a marriage, so the second big lesson that we learned is that it’s not just the number of friends you have, and it’s not whether or not you’re in a committed relationship, but it’s the quality of your close relationships that matters. It turns out that living in the midst of conflict is really bad for our health. High-conflict marriages, for example, without much affection, turn out to be very bad for our health, perhaps worse than getting divorced. And living in the midst of good, warm relationships is protective.”
Lesson 3: Good relationships protect our bodies & brains.
“(…) Good relationships don’t just protect our bodies,” Waldinger states, “they protect our brains. It turns out that being in a securely attached relationship to another person in your 80s is protective, that the people who are in relationships where they really feel they can count on the other person in times of need, those people’s memories stay sharper longer. And the people in relationships where they feel they really can’t count on the other one, those are the people who experience earlier memory decline. And those good relationships, they don’t have to be smooth all the time. Some of our octogenarian couples could bicker with each other day in and day out, but as long as they felt that they could really count on the other when the going got tough, those arguments didn’t take a toll on their memories.”
Good, close relationships are good for our health and well-being.
What is the big news here, one might say? It raises the question that if this wisdom is so easy to get, why is it also so easy to ignore in a world where we seem to prefer hiding behind screens than building real relationships? Or reaching out to family members we have not spoken to in years. Answers can be found in our nature as human beings to always reach for the easiest solution. Go for the quick fixes. A survival instinct from our hunter-gatherer days, where energy had to be saved preciously because we did not know when our next meal might be… System 1, as psychologist and economist Daniel Kahneman calls it. We know how relationships can often be tiring and complicated, and tending to family and friends can be hard work. It is also life long. It never ends.
So what this 79-year-old research shows is that the people who were the happiest in retirement were the people who had actively worked to replace workmates with new playmates, and that the people who fared the best were the ones who leaned towards relationships with family, with friends, and with the community.
So what about you? If you were going to invest now in your future best self, where would you put your time and energy?
Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011.
© Robert Waldinger