As we approach the two-year anniver­sary of the pan­dem­ic lock­down, I find myself think­ing more and more about pri­or­i­ties. What have I learned about life and how it should be lived? What mat­ters to me and why?

I have always sus­pect­ed that what soci­ety tells us to pri­or­i­tize – fame, wealth, beau­ty, suc­cess – is not enough for a full life. It turns out, we tru­ly only need one thing to live a ful­filled, suc­cess­ful life.

We need to run towards love.

And if that sounds like trite cof­fee-mug faith, keep reading. 

The Harvard Grant and Glueck study has fol­lowed 268 male Harvard under­grad­u­ates from the class­es of 1938–1940 (the Grant study) and 456 men grow­ing up in the poor­est ten­e­ments in Boston in 1939 (the Glueck study) for 80 years, reg­u­lar­ly col­lect­ing data on var­i­ous aspects of their phys­i­cal and emo­tion­al lives. The men have filled out ques­tion­naires and grant­ed inter­views every decade. They’ve had their hand­writ­ing ana­lyzed, their blood drawn. They have been hooked up to EEGs and slid into MRI machines to get exten­sive data. A hand­ful of men, now well into their nineties, are still alive and par­tic­i­pat­ing. Harvard was an all-male col­lege at the time, so it was decid­ed to only fol­low men, though wives and now more than 2,000 chil­dren have since been added to the ongo­ing study of what makes a good life. 

The researchers were work­ing on an assump­tion that social class, IQ, and genet­ics would be the best pre­dic­tors of long and hap­py lives. What they found was that fame and finan­cial suc­cess did not delay men­tal and phys­i­cal decline.

But lov­ing rela­tion­ships did. The more strong, deep con­nec­tions the par­tic­i­pants had, the more con­tent they were with their lives, regard­less of their occu­pa­tion, health con­di­tions, or bank account size.

Those who loved and felt loved had health­i­er brains and bod­ies than those who report­ed feel­ing lone­ly for much of their lives. Connection was a far bet­ter indi­ca­tor of a strong heart than cho­les­terol lev­els. The data revealed that healthy rela­tion­ships actu­al­ly improve our chances of sur­vival by 50%!

So if real con­nec­tion makes a good life, then how do we define con­nec­tion? The study defines a lov­ing rela­tion­ship as one where there is vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty, trust, affec­tion, and depth. The quan­ti­ty of rela­tion­ships mat­ters less than the qual­i­ty of them.

George Vaillant, one of the study’s direc­tors, says that there are two pil­lars of a con­tent, full exis­tence: “One is love. The oth­er is find­ing a way of cop­ing with life that does not push love away.” 

Every man in the study had trau­ma and suf­fer­ing at some point. But the ones who coped in resilient ways – like talk ther­a­py and grief coun­sel­ing – bounced back more quick­ly toward a joy­ful and sat­is­fied life. Appropriate cop­ing mech­a­nisms were run­ning towards love. The ones who ran toward inap­pro­pri­ate cop­ing mech­a­nisms – like addic­tion and iso­la­tion – gen­er­al­ly pushed their loved ones away. One man began the study with the low­est rat­ing for future sta­bil­i­ty of every­one in the study because he had pre­vi­ous­ly attempt­ed sui­cide. But by the end of his life, he was one of the hap­pi­est. Why? Vaillant says, “He spent his life search­ing for love.”

We find our­selves on the precipice of our new nor­mal. With almost all pan­dem­ic restric­tions being lift­ed, we have more choice about how we spend our time and ener­gy. Our pri­or­i­ties should always be to run towards love.

Want 12 min­utes of hope? Psychiatrist and cur­rent study direc­tor Robert Waldinger’s 2015 Ted Talk enti­tled What Makes a Good Life?  has been viewed more than 40 mil­lion times. 

  • Erin Skinner Smith

    Erin Skinner Smith wants every­one to slow down, eat real food, move their bod­ies, go out­side, and hit the pil­low a lit­tle ear­li­er for a more pur­pose­ful exis­tence. She is a pub­lished writer, yoga teacher, and mind­ful­ness coach. When she’s not stand­ing on her head or typ­ing on her trusty lap­top, you’ll find her read­ing, play­ing gui­tar, enjoy­ing a glass of bour­bon, or snug­gling on the couch with her peo­ple and pets. Send her a dig­i­tal high five at erintheomplace.net.