The Good Life, Lessons from the World’s Longest Scientific Study of Happiness

In 1938 the Harvard Study of Adult Development was initiated to try to determine what made people thrive. Beginning with 724 participants, it is still ongoing and in its third generation covering over 1,300 of the descendants of the original members. The study has followed the participants from age 14 on with an amazing 84% continuing in the study throughout their lives. Every two years the members receive questionnaires, every five years complete health records are obtained from doctors, and every 15 years personal interviews take place. The authors state that the aim of this book is to offer what we have learned about the human condition, to show what the Harvard Study has to say about the universal experience of being alive (p. 16). What has been discovered is one fundamental truth: We are sustained in a web of relationships that give our life meaning and purpose (p. 283).

While the assumption and ambition of most people is to be rich (p. 1), the study has demonstrated wealth adds little joy once average income levels are reached (pp. 40-42). What matters most are relationships. “Good relationships keep us healthier and happier, period” (p. 10; cf. pp. 23, 47, 116, 278-280). Sadly, loneliness is common and growing in our society (pp. 21, 29, 92-95); it is no wonder that the authors include a whole chapter on the importance of friendship.

The Good Life is filled with interesting true-life stories, helpful statistics, and valuable conclusions. The authors (Waldinger is the current head of the Harvard Study) are both professionals in the field of psychological and they offer advice that reflects their bias. Their counsel, based on observable scientific studies and research, has validity, which is why the Harvard Study is both interesting and useful. Other ideas, based on psychology, are less trustworthy. But the primary conclusion drawn from the study is noteworthy — relationships matter and give life purpose and joy. The most important relationship however, is not mentioned — and that is one’s relationship with Christ. For that, do not turn to the Harvard Study but to holy Scriptures.

by Robert Waldinger, MD and Marc Schulz, PhD (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2023), 341 pp + x, hard $18.99

Reviewed by Gary E. Gilley, Pastor-teacher at Southern View Chapel

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