What makes a good life? Hint: it's not money, fame or even a successful job...

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By psychologist Jane Dodding

What makes a good life? What keeps us happy and healthy? What are our most important life goals?

The most common answers to these questions are … money, fame, successful job. We are regularly told to "lean into work", but do these goals lead to a healthy, happy and long life? If not, what does?

Harvard University has been researching this question for a very long time and has accumulated a huge amount of information. Researchers have been running a prospective longitudinal study for 75 years (which is an impressive achievement in itself) and are up to the fourth person leading the study: psychiatrist Robert Waldinger.

Every two years since 1938, they have touched base with 724 men. They have been interviewing them and their families, accessing their medical records, taking their blood, scanning their brains, and observing them talking to their families about their deepest concerns over the course of their lives. This information has provided a wealth of knowledge about adult development and what actually happened in these men’s lives (as opposed to an account of their lives based on memory, which as we all know can be quite selective and biased).

There were two groups of men: 1) Harvard college students; and 2) boys from troubled, disadvantaged families in Boston. Some of the men became brick layers, lawyers, factory workers, doctors and alcoholics. One became the president of the United States. A few developed schizophrenia.

"Some climbed the social ladder all the way to the top and others went in the opposite direction."

Of the original men, 60 are still alive and most are in now in their 90s. And yes, they did eventually begin collecting the same information for women!

So from all this information, what have they found that truly does lead to happiness and life satisfaction?

Is isn’t being rich, working hard or being famous ... as many might think.

The clear message from this study is that good relationships keep us happier and healthier. The three main findings are:

1. Social connection is important

Those who are more socially connected to family, friends, and the community are happier, healthier, and live longer than those not as well connected. They found that loneliness is toxic and kills.

2. The quality of relationships is important

As we all know, you can be lonely in a relationship or in a crowd. It is not about how many friends you have or whether you are married. Having close, good quality relationships is protective (they protect our health) while relationships with high conflict are not good for our health. They found that "those most satisfied with their relationships at 50 were the healthiest at 80".

3. Good relationships protect our brains too: they protect our memory

Those who had secure relationships (that they could count on in time of need) in their 80s had sharper memories for longer, compared to those who couldn’t count on others. The main point here is that relationships don’t need to be smooth all the time, but that we know we can count on others in time of need, that they are there for us.

These results concur with other research done over the years into happiness and relationships. Martin Seligman has spent many years researching and developing a theory of happiness and wellbeing. Relationships, or connection with others, have been found to be important for us to flourish.

Similarly, John Gottman has spent over 20 years researching what makes relationships successful. He notes that it is the type of connection established, not how often there is conflict but how conflict is managed. It's possible to predict with 94 per cent accuracy if a couple will stay together, by watching how newlyweds argue.

FIFO and happiness

Fly-in, fly-out work can be challenging to relationships. Given the impact this has on our health, happiness and wellbeing, it is worth thinking about how to establish and maintain quality relationships.

When we talk about relationships, who often think of partners, family and friends. But it also includes work colleagues and the wider community. One area that I don’t think is talked about as much is the importance of workplace relationships. It is worth investing time and energy to build, enhance and maintain workplace camaraderie as this too has an impact on health and happiness.

We hear about the incredible bond and camaraderie among soldiers, where they have each other’s backs and how this bond helps them cope with being away from their loved ones and stressful experiences. Given that FIFO workers live and work together for extended periods of time (often on remote and isolated work sites) these relationships are important to health and happiness, too. 

So is workplace camaraderie a luxury or a necessity? I'd say that if you want to be happy and healthy, it's a necessity.

Essentially, the important part about relationships is connection, a sense of belonging and trust. Seems that Dindim, the penguin getting media coverage of late, knows what is important to live a happy, healthy life and live longer. He swims thousands of kilometres every year to maintain his relationship with the person he knows he can count on – the man who saved his life.

As Robert Waldinger says in the his Ted Talk, we need to LEAN INTO RELATIONSHIPS. 

  • Engage with others 
  • Connect regularly
  • Be available, be present and be attentive 
  • Be warm and nurture fondness and admiration
  • Respond and acknowledge when someone talks to you or makes a bid for your attention. Just a smile or a nod will do at times.
  • Build bridges and reach out to estranged family and others. Ongoing conflict can take a terrible toll on all.

Of course, some would say this wisdom is as old as the hills. Because we're human though, I think we need constant reminders. So go on: lean in!  

Further information  

To read other columns written by our psychologists, please click here. And remember that we offer a free email Q&A service with our psychologists, so just click here to ask a question about relationships, parenting or your career.

All advice on Mining Family Matters is for general information only and should never be regarded as a substitute for professional health services or crisis services. To talk with a trained volunteer telephone counsellor at any time of the day or night, call Lifeline on 13 11 14. To contact the info line at beyondblue: national depression initiative, phone 1300 22 4636.

Jane Dodding is a psychologist and director with MindsPlus, a group of psychologists and other mental health workers who came together in 2007 to provide support to people living and working in rural and remote regions of Australia. For further information about MindsPlus, contact 1300 312 202 or visit www.mindsplus.com.au