The Good Life - Critical summary review - Robert J. Waldinger
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The Good Life - critical summary review

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Self Help & Motivation

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ISBN: 198216669X

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Critical summary review

Imagine you had to make one life decision that would embark you on the road to future health and happiness. Would you change your career? Perhaps you would choose to save more money each month. Some people would probably decide to travel more or move someplace else. If you are uncertain what decision would ensure your happiness and wellness, consult The New York Times bestseller ‘’The Good Life’’ by Marc Schulz and Robert J. Waldinger. This book sums up valuable insights from the longest in-depth longitudinal study of human happiness ever done. In fact, it says that only one life investment can keep us happier and healthier. Get ready to hear which one!

The longest study of human life

Although they were keen to participate in the Harvard Study of Adult Development and always answered questionnaires carefully and honestly, Rosa and Henry never fully understood why they were a point of interest to researchers. They both grew up poor, married in their 20s, and had five kids. They survived plenty of hardships, such as the Great Depression, but, overall, when compared to the lives of the people around them, theirs was far from extraordinary. Yet, they had been part of the research for more than sixty years - and not only they but some of their children also. 

    At the core of Schulz and Waldinger’s book is, already mentioned, the Harvard Study of Adult Development which began decades ago, in 1938, and is still ongoing today. The goal of the study is to investigate human health and well-being by focusing on what makes people thrive. The study has followed and recorded the experiences, such as childhood troubles, first loves, and final days of 724 participants and their descendants. Of course, not only examinees’ recollections of experiences and their ratings of life but also things like brain scans, blood tests, and stress hormone levels were taken into account when determining their happiness and well-being. Including three generations of participants and methods that have evolved over decades, this study is the longest in-depth longitudinal study of human life. 

Now, let’s go back to Rosa and Henry. When, for instance, in 1977, Henry, 50 at the time, was asked to rate his enjoyment in marriage, mood, and physical health over the past two years, his answer to all three was: excellent. In fact, in his hardest, as well as happiest times, he would report he was ‘’happy’’ or ‘’very happy.’’ Rosa and Henry’s daughter Peggy, also a study participant, saw her parents as supportive and ‘’very affectionate.’’ She also said her parents never considered divorce, and that statement was consistent with Henry and Rosa’s reports about their marriage. All in all, we can say that the couple got along well - with each other, their children, and members of the community. They both died in 2009, more than six decades after their first interview with Harvard researchers. 

    So, what can we learn from Rosa and Henry? Or, to repeat the question they repeatedly asked themselves: why were they significant to Harvard researchers?

We evolved to be connected

Although things such as career achievement, exercise, and a healthy diet can contribute to mental and physical health and longevity, throughout the years of research, one thing continuously demonstrated significance in making life happier and healthier - meaningful relationships. ‘’In fact,’’ the authors write, ‘’good relationships are significant enough that if we had to take all eighty-four years of the Harvard Study and boil it down to a single principle for living, one life investment that is supported by similar findings across a wide variety of other studies, it would be this: Good relationships keep us healthier and happier. Period.’’

 

If you consider our evolutionary history, it is not at all surprising that numerous longitudinal studies witness the importance of human connection. Think about it - it is quite extraordinary how our prehistoric ancestors managed to survive, considering the primitive technology they had. Imagine how challenging it was for them to fight dangerous predators and even diseases, such as toothache, which were deadly back then and unharmful nowadays. Yet, they survived because of one important reason - cooperation. Hundreds of thousands of years ago, our brains developed to respond to positive interactions by giving our bodies pleasure sensations - the feelings of warmth and comfort, safety, exhilaration, relief, or boost of energy. Negative experiences, on the contrary, are perceived by our brains as danger, which as a consequence, stimulates the production of stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol.

Naturally, the challenges we face today differ considerably from those of our ancestors. However, as the authors emphasize, ‘’regardless of the pace of change and the choices many of us now have, this fact remains: the human animal has evolved to be connected with other human.’’

    So, scientific studies have confirmed one of the earliest knowledge humans acquired - we need each other to survive, just as we need nutrition, exercise, and purpose. Why has, despite this, chronic loneliness become an epidemic in the contemporary world? Why have people become more likely to make choices that harm their well-being?

The good life is not always what we think it is

    There probably isn’t an individual who would answer negatively to the question: Do you want to have a good life? Of course, everyone wants to live well. Yet, many prioritize pursuing goals that have little, or nothing to do with improving their lives. In a survey conducted in 2007, 76% of millennials marked becoming rich as their number one goal. A decade later, the respondents' answers showed they were still preoccupied with making money, having a successful career, and becoming debt-free. These answers are somewhat expected and predictable since these practical pursuits are prioritized worldwide across generations. Do you remember when you were asked as a child what you wanted to become when you grew up? From our early days, society bombards us with messages about the significance of titles, salaries, and achievements. Look at the ads - they tell us that buying this or that will bring new joy to our lives - and even if most of us understand these are not predictors of a good life, we subconsciously feel these things can make us happier. 

    Apart from the notion that money and success equal happiness, modern society has managed to ingrain a feeling in us that a good life does not actually exist or that it is in the hands of a minority. However, Schulz and Waldinger emphasize, ‘’The good life is joyful… and challenging. Full of love, but also pain. And it never strictly happens; instead, the good life unfolds, through time. It is a process. It includes turmoil, calm, lightness, burdens, struggles, achievements, setbacks, leaps forward, and terrible falls.’’

    Misleading messages of consumerist culture are not the only ones to blame for our failure to reach a good life. As the authors write, ‘’Our brains, the most sophisticated and mysterious system in the known universe, often mislead us in our quest for lasting pleasure and satisfaction.’’ There is a substantial amount of research showing that human beings are bad at affective forecasting - in particular, we often overlook the positive impact of relationships - ‘’we pay a lot of attention to potential costs and downplay or dismiss potential benefits,’’ and end up making decisions based on faulty thinking we find perfectly logical.

Better halves can’t make us whole

    We have learned so far that good relationships are predictors of happiness. But, what kind of relationship do we consider a good one? What are, for instance, features of happy and long-lasting intimate relationships?

    In Plato’s Symposium, Aristophanes tells a story about strong and ambitious humans - creatures with four legs, four arms, and two heads. To diminish their power, Zeus split them all down the middle and, since then, each human has been on a quest to find their other half. Although you might perceive this ancient myth as touching and romantic, the story about happy relationships should begin by debunking the idea of love as a pursuit of wholeness and our desire to be complete. The truth is, close relationships get weighed down when you think of your partner as your ‘’better half’’, when you expect them to give you everything you need - money, love, sex, friendship, laugh, and safety. Don’t get this wrong - intimate relationships can be ‘’an incredible source of sustenance for our body and minds’’. However, ‘’if we want to give a relationship the best chance of success, we have to support it by sustaining other parts of our lives. Our partners may in fact be our better halves, but they can’t, by themselves, make us whole.’’

    Although your partner cannot give you everything you need, they should give you a sense of security. Take Henry and Rosa as an example. In times of hardship, they could turn to each other for support, comfort, and courage. The authors say the two of them are people with a ‘’secure attachment style’’ - they found comfort in each other in times of stress and didn't avoid closeness because they feared they would drive each other away by fully revealing themselves. No, Rosa and Henry were aware of their flaws and convinced they were not unlovable because of them.

    Finally, let’s talk about emotions. In a Harvard study, two categories of emotions stood out as predictors of healthy and lasting relationships - empathy and affection. The men and women who were more affectionate while addressing uncomfortable topics with their partners were more likely to remain in a relationship five years later. In the authors' words, ‘’if a couple can cultivate a bedrock of affection and empathy (meaning curiosity and the willingness to listen), their bond will be more stable and enduring.’’

Maintaining social fitness

Since they lived in a tribe and made lots of effort to stay alive, maintaining physical and social fitness was not a concern of our ancestors. Modern lifestyle, however, deprives people of physical activity, so we need to make an effort to move - do yoga, go running, or exercise in the gym. The same is true for our social fitness - it needs regular exercise and checkups so that our relationships don’t atrophy. Compared to physical fitness, social fitness is harder to take care of as it requires a sustained self-reflection, or, as the authors say: “A much deeper look in the mirror.’’

The first step in maintaining social fitness should be assessing the quality of your relationships - that is, you need to determine which of them are energizing and which are depleting. According to the authors, an energizing relationship enlivens and invigorates you, and gives you a sense of connection and belonging that remains after the two of you separate. ‘’It makes you feel better than you would feel if you were alone.’’ Depleting relationships, on the other hand, make you feel frustrated, worried, anxious and even demoralized. After interacting with people who make you feel this way, you might feel more disconnected than when alone.

Next, think about the frequency of your contacts. When was the last time you saw a person who energizes you? How often would you like to see them? If you fall into the trap of thinking you don’t have time to meet up, just remember that the average American spends eleven hours every day watching television or looking at their smartphones. From the age of 40 to the age of 80, that adds up to eighteen years of waking life! So, would you rather spend those years in front of the TV or with a phone in your hands, or with the people you love?

Finally, to assess your social fitness, occasionally ask yourself: Why is this person in my life? Is this relationship where I want it to be? Why do they give me a depleted feeling? Answers to these questions can help you appreciate more relationships that improve your life and reveal those you need to work on more.

Final Notes

    One thing that the authors emphasize and that we did not mention but can be a perfect final note of this summary is that your ‘’ways of being in the world are not set in stone. It’s more like they are set in sand.’’ In other words, it is never too late for you to change. Perhaps you made wrong choices before, and you will certainly make them occasionally, but nothing you experienced prevents you from connecting with others, thriving and being happy in the future. Be you a young or an elderly adult, the research shows meaningful change is always possible.

12min Tip

Think about a person who is important to you. It can be your parent, spouse, coworker, sibling, or even a teacher from your younger days. Without any hesitation, reach out to them. Tell them what they mean to you and where you would be if they weren’t in your life.

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Who wrote the book?

Dr. Schulz received his BA from Amherst College and his Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of California at Berkeley. He is the associate dire... (Read more)

Dr. Waldinger received his AB from Harvard College and his MD from Harvard Medical School. He teaches psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and directs the Harvard Study of Adult Development at Massachusetts General Hospital. He is also a co-founder of t... (Read more)

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