As we move into yet another holiday season, many of us will find ourselves reflecting on the past year and on our lives in general. Some of us will even begin thinking about New Year’s resolutions with hopes that, over the course of the upcoming year, these new goals might bring us closer to our personal aspirations for a happy, successful life.
The longest, and still ongoing, study about what makes for a good life has been in progress for more than 75 years at Harvard University. Back in 1938, they began tracking and studying 724 men. Those still living are now in their 90s. They studied two groups: one group began participating while in their sophomore year at Harvard, and the other was gathered from the slums of Boston.
The clear message of this study is this: good relationships keep us healthier and happier. The researchers came to three resounding conclusions. First, good social connections are really good for us while loneliness slowly kills us. They learned that people who are more socially isolated than they would like to be experience decreasing brain function earlier in life and have shorter life spans.
Second, it’s not the number of friends you have or whether you’re in a committed relationship that matters most. It’s the quality of our relationships that have the greatest impact on our health and happiness. For example, living in the midst of a high-conflict marriage that’s void of affection takes a higher toll on us than getting divorced. Good, warm relationships are protective. Those most satisfied with their relationships at 50 were the healthiest at 80. Good relationships make the aches and pains of aging more bearable whereas unhappiness was found to magnify pain and moodiness.
And third, good relationships protect our brains. Memories stay sharper longer when we have people we can count on to really be there for us when we need them. This doesn’t mean our relationships have to smooth sailing all the time; but we need to know that when the going gets tough, we can count on people in our lives for the support we need.
This may sound like age-old wisdom, but unfortunately, we humans want quick fixes and often shy away from the messy, hard work of building good, close relationships. This work is complicated and unending. Nevertheless, fame, wealth and high achievement don’t matter as much in the end as good relationships with family, friends and the community.
Those happiest in retirement are the ones who have put the effort into creating strong relationships and actively worked to replace their work community with a group of people they can engage with in shared interests and activities.
So, what does this all have to do with Aristotle you may wonder. Aristotle promoted the belief that people are happiest when they live a life based on the golden mean – that position of doing the right thing at the right time. He believed that the right thing could be found in the middle between the vices of doing too little to help a situation and going overboard or doing too much to try to help.
A person who practices the golden mean seems to know just what to say and can diffuse a tense situation. This is the person who can deliver tough news gracefully and is confident without being arrogant. This person is brave but not reckless, and generous but not extravagant.
This is a person of courage who knows how to assess a situation in light of their own ability to help and then is willing to take the most useful action even when it’s difficult. This person can deliver hard truths gracefully, break bad news gently, and offer criticism in a way that’s constructive rather than soul-crushing.
Aristotle believed that this way of living would lead to the greatest happiness and the most fulfilling achievements.
In these times of incredibly polarized thinking, with contention all around us, seeking to finding the golden mean, in whatever situations we find ourselves, may be the healthiest and most productive rule to live by.
Kris Pate is executive director of United Way of La Porte County.