What Makes a Good Life?

How do you define a good life? We share highlights from two studies of long-term health and happiness, plus our own experiences.

Most of us aspire to live a good life. We may assume we know what that looks like, without asking what a good life looks like for us – which may diverge quite a bit from cultural ideals. We share research findings from two of the best-known studies on long-term happiness and health and discuss how our own ideas of a good life have changed over time. 

Study 1: The Harvard Study of Adult Development 

The world’s longest scientific study of happiness – Harvard Study of Adult Development – started in 1938 and followed 724 young men over their lives. The study eventually included their spouses and 1300 of their descendants. It has collected all kinds of data over time on each participant, including interviews, surveys, medical exams, and visits to their homes.

The study found that the most important factor in long-term health and contentment in life wasn’t income or levels of achievement; it wasn’t even exercise or nutrition. It was how satisfied people were in their relationships. The central takeaway from the research is that good lives are built on good relationships. 

What do good relationships look like? 

They are relationships with people you can count on in times of need, where you feel warmth and connection and a secure attachment. The relationships don’t need to be smooth all the time; there can be conflict and even frequent bickering, but you show up for each other when it counts.

Robert Waldinger, the current director of the Harvard Study, shares these lessons that emerged about relationships:

  • Social connection is good for us, and loneliness is a threat to our health. Loneliness is when you’re more isolated than you want to be. People in good relationships have better mental and physical health and live longer than those who don’t.
  • It’s the quality of your relationships that matters. Building good relationships doesn’t require being close with your family of origin or having a romantic partner. And there’s not a certain number of relationships you need. What’s important is that you feel satisfied with the amount and quality of social connection you have in your life.

Study 2: The Blue Zones 

What can we learn from the people who live the longest around the world?

We’ve mentioned the Blue Zones on the podcast before – which are five regions in the world identified as being hotspots for longevity and health. The concept of the blue zones is based on demographic research from 2000 that found Sardinia, Italy as the region in the world with the highest concentration of men living to 100 years or older. 

Author Dan Buettner, working with National Geographic, built on this work to identify four other other longevity hotspots or blue zones. He’s written several books, started a Blue Zones organization and has a new Netflix limited series on the topic.  

The five Blue Zone regions are: 

  • The Barbagia region of Sardinia – The mountainous highlands of inner Sardinia with the world’s highest concentration of men living over the age of 100.
  • Ikaria, Greece – An Aegean Island with one of the world’s lowest rates of middle age mortality and the lowest rates of dementia.
  • Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica – A place with the world’s lowest rates of middle age mortality, second highest concentration of male centenarians.
  • Loma Linda, California – A city with a high concentration of Seventh Day Adventists, who live 10 years longer than their North American counterparts.
  • Okinawa, Japan – An island with the longest-lived population of women in the world.

Buettner and a team of medical researchers, anthropologists, demographers, and epidemiologists worked together to pinpoint nine evidence-based elements that all five places had in common – the Power 9:

1. Move naturally: They make movement a natural part of their day, by doing things like walking to do errands, gardening or doing household chores 

2. Purpose: They cultivate a sense of purpose, or a reason to wake up in the morning, which can add up to seven extra years of life expectancy. 

3. Downshift: They develop effective ways to manage stress, including mid-day naps, daily prayer, or time with loved ones.

4. 80% rule: They eat most of their food when they are most active, such as in the morning and early afternoon. And they eat until they are satiated, not full – “Hara Hachi bu” is an Okinawan, Confucian mantra that means to stop eating when you are 80% full. 

5. Plant slant: They put plants at the center of their diet, eating lots of beans, nuts, fruits and veggies. Some regions eat some fish and limited meat, and vegetarianism is common among Seventh-Day Adventists in Loma Linda, CA. 

6. Wine @ 5: People in all blue zones (except Adventists) drink alcohol in moderation, primarily a glass or two of red wine a day with meals or with friends. 

7. Belong: They cultivate a faith-based sense of belonging. Of the 265 centenarians the researchers interviewed, 258 belonged to a faith-based community. The denomination or beliefs don’t seem to matter, but gathering regularly with others who share your beliefs is important. 

8. Loved ones first: They put their families first, often living with several generations nearby or in the same home, and committing to a life partner. 

9. Right tribe: They develop strong social networks who support healthy behaviors – and these social ties are crucial at combating loneliness later in life. Okinawans traditionally create ”moais,” groups of friends that form in childhood and extend into old age. Moais “meet for a common purpose,” sometimes daily or several times a week, to socialize and support each other.  

Get In Touch

What does a good life look like for you? Tell us at podcast@semitogether.com or send us a voice memo.

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The Good Life: Lessons from the World’s Longest Scientific Study of Happiness, by Marc Schulz, MD, and Robert Waldinger, MD

TED talk / transcript by Robert Waldinger, director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development 

The Blue Zones: the Power 9 practices for longevity

Netflix: Live to 100, Secrets of the Blue Zones 

House Calls with Dr. Vivek Murthy: Meet My Moai, A Powerful Friendship Tradition

Dr. Dean Ornish: research-based lifestyle medicine