As we approach the two-year anniversary of the pandemic lockdown, I find myself thinking more and more about priorities. What have I learned about life and how it should be lived? What matters to me and why?
I have always suspected that what society tells us to prioritize – fame, wealth, beauty, success – is not enough for a full life. It turns out, we truly only need one thing to live a fulfilled, successful life.
We need to run towards love.
And if that sounds like trite coffee-mug faith, keep reading.
The Harvard Grant and Glueck study has followed 268 male Harvard undergraduates from the classes of 1938-1940 (the Grant study) and 456 men growing up in the poorest tenements in Boston in 1939 (the Glueck study) for 80 years, regularly collecting data on various aspects of their physical and emotional lives. The men have filled out questionnaires and granted interviews every decade. They’ve had their handwriting analyzed, their blood drawn. They have been hooked up to EEGs and slid into MRI machines to get extensive data. A handful of men, now well into their nineties, are still alive and participating. Harvard was an all-male college at the time, so it was decided to only follow men, though wives and now more than 2,000 children have since been added to the on-going study of what makes a good life.
The researchers were working on an assumption that social class, IQ, and genetics would be the best predictors of long and happy lives. What they found was that fame and financial success did not delay mental and physical decline.
But loving relationships did. The more strong, deep connections the participants had, the more content they were with their lives, regardless of their occupation, health conditions, or bank account size.
Those who loved and felt loved had healthier brains and bodies than those who reported feeling lonely for much of their lives. Connection was a far better indicator of a strong heart than cholesterol levels. The data revealed that healthy relationships actually improve our chances of survival by 50%!
So if real connection makes a good life, then how do we define connection? The study defines a loving relationship as one where there is vulnerability, trust, affection, and depth. The quantity of relationships matters less than the quality of them.
George Vaillant, one of the study’s directors, says that there are two pillars of a content, full existence: “One is love. The other is finding a way of coping with life that does not push love away.”
Every man in the study had trauma and suffering at some point. But the ones who coped in resilient ways – like talk therapy and grief counseling – bounced back more quickly toward a joyful and satisfied life. Appropriate coping mechanisms were running towards love. The ones who ran toward inappropriate coping mechanisms – like addiction and isolation – generally pushed their loved ones away. One man began the study with the lowest rating for future stability of everyone in the study because he had previously attempted suicide. But by the end of his life, he was one of the happiest. Why? Vaillant says, “He spent his life searching for love.”
We find ourselves on the precipice of our new normal. With almost all pandemic restrictions being lifted, we have more choice about how we spend our time and energy. Our priorities should always be to run towards love.
Want 12 minutes of hope? Psychiatrist and current study director Robert Waldinger’s 2015 Ted Talk entitled What Makes a Good Life? has been viewed more than 40 million times. Watch it for yourself here.