A Good Life

There have been a few times in the history of this blog when I wrote about the personal over the professional. This post is one of them, although the link between the two is tight. I’m talking about what makes a good life.

Psychiatrist and Harvard professor Robert Waldinger, fourth director of a massive longitudinal study spanning over 75 years – The Harvard Study of Adult Development – gave a TEDx talk in November 2015 to answer a question as old as human history itself: What makes a good life? His answer was based on the Harvard Study, a massive undertaking begun in the late 1930’s to track the lives of 724 men from their late teens until death. The initial study population consisted of two groups, one comprised of Harvard sophomores and the other of young men from Boston’s poorest neighborhoods. Over time the study has expanded to the children and spouses of these men.

What is the secret to a happy, healthy, good life? Career success? Recognition? Money?

No, the secret is having good relationships, inclusive of a healthy social circle, solid collegial relationships and, of greatest importance, quality intimate relationships whether with a long-term spouse or partner. Taking the findings further, just having relationships is not enough. It’s the quality of those relationships that counts. For example, according to Walding, being in a high conflict marriage with little affection is worse for one’s health than divorce. Quality relationships are actually protective in terms of mental, emotional and physical well-being, in the near and long-term.

How do quality personal relationships relate to one’s professional success? Well-being is not exclusive to one area of life or another. What impacts one’s overall health and happiness transfers across all areas. Health is a foundational element of one’s ability to grow and thrive. It’s opposite, disease or dis-ease, is an experience of “not rightness” that permeates the entirety of one’s being. People who report being lonely, which is measured by the strength and value of connections not just the existence of them, live shorter lives with more rapid mid-life decline than those who are securely connected. How can one perform at their best professionally if their well-being is stressed or in decline? Even those with inordinate amounts of skill in certain areas are operating at less than their full potential. And the experience of loneliness and ill health remain ever present in spite of one’s ability to temporarily block awareness of them.

On March 15, 2016, I published a blog entitled “Connection”  that focused on the power of connection between a leader and her people. Connection is an important theme to me. What fascinates me about the Harvard Study is how it upends our conventional wisdom that individual achievement and recognition are the prima facie of happiness. Work hard, do well and you will be happy. While personal achievement is powerful and beneficial, without mutually enriching, secure connection, we humans still find ourselves wanting.

In fact, external success is buffeted and supported by the success we create at home. Think of those periods of temporary tumult in our lives. The strong personal connections we have, even if they become stressed, nurture within us greater emotional, mental and physical resilience that can be applied to our external lives. Find yourself in the reverse situation and your ability to push and expand your potential is stunted. If one’s core system is weak, the whole network is compromised. So yes, a good life, inclusive of lasting professional success, is built upon good relationships.

Waldinger ended his TEDx talk by quoting Mark Twain, and I shall do the same: “There isn’t time, so brief is life, for bickerings, apologies, heartburnings, callings to account. There is only time for loving, and but an instant, so to speak, for that.”



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