In the 1980s, when data from the world’s longest-running study on happiness started to show that good relationships kept us healthier and happier, the researchers didn’t really believe it. “We know there’s a mind-body connection and we all pay lip service to it,” says Dr Robert Waldinger, the director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, which has been running for 84 years. “But how could warmer relationships make it less likely that you would develop coronary artery disease or arthritis? How could relationships get into the body and affect our physiology?” Then, other studies started to show the same. “We thought: OK, we can begin to have confidence in this finding.”
It was still a surprise, says Waldinger, but so convinced is he of this fundamental truth that the new book he has co-written with Dr Marc Schulz, The Good Life, focuses mainly on relationships and how to improve them. There are other components, of course, and they tend to be similar across countries, cultures and social grades (he points to the UN’s annual World Happiness report). These include good health and a healthy life expectancy, plus the freedom and capacity to make significant life decisions. Trust is important, he says – not just in friends and neighbours, but also in governments. “One interesting thing that people mention around the world is generosity and opportunities to be generous,” says Waldinger.