The Importance of Positive Relationships for a Good Life

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Good Life" by Robert Waldinger and Marc Schulz. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Do relationships often seem to come second in your life? How would things change if you prioritized positive relationships?

The Good Life by Robert Waldinger and Marc Schulz argues that positive relationships are what make life worth living. But, many people tend to put their relationships on the back burner and don’t even realize the effect it has on their life.

Keep reading to understand the importance of positive relationships if you want to live the good life.

The Importance of Positive Relationships

Not surprisingly, the importance of positive relationships goes all the way back into antiquity. Waldinger and Schulz argue that a good life consists of what Greek philosopher Aristotle called eudaimonia and what scholars today call “eudaimonic happiness.” Eudaimonia represents a sort of flourishing, and it’s neither a temporary state of being nor a goal you can achieve. Rather, eudaimonia is a long-term sense of contentment or purpose—the concept you’re referring to when you say, “I’m happy with my life.” 

Waldinger and Schulz specify that this good life—this eudaimonic happiness—depends mostly on the quality (not the quantity) of your relationships and how often you interact with others. In other words, having many friends won’t improve your life if they’re all toxic. Having many friends won’t improve your life if they’re all toxic. Positive relationships contribute to your happiness because they improve your health; these relationships act as a buffer to life’s many health-reducing stressors (such as old age). 

(Shortform note: Relationships that aren’t high-quality don’t buffer you against stressors; they may do the opposite—even if you have many of them. One study found an association between people who had many “ambivalent” relationships—relationships that included both good and bad interchanges—and shorter telomeres (the ends of chromosomes), which is thought to be a key sign of aging.)

(Shortform note: Unlike Waldinger and Schulz, Aristotle didn’t consider relationships a necessary component of eudaimonia. In Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle defines eudaimonia as rational activity aligned with virtue. In other words, eudaimonia (or happiness) stems from regularly making and acting upon morally virtuous choices throughout your life. Similarly, while many modern psychologists agree that relationships are important for eudaimonic happiness, they propose several other ways to reach it that don’t involve relationships, such as writing down or reaching important goals.)

Positive relationships also help prevent loneliness, the feeling you get when you have less social interaction than you desire. Waldinger and Schulz cite several surveys that indicate that people worldwide are increasingly lonely and that this loneliness negatively affects our mental and physical health. The authors suggest that loneliness is bad for us because it triggers a stress response from our evolutionary history: Back when we relied on tribal communities for survival, being left alone often meant death—loneliness kickstarted a stress response that helped us survive even without our tribe. But in the modern world, many people are chronically lonely and so under constant stress, which harms our mental and physical health. 

Loneliness Versus Social Isolation

A 2023 meta-analysis of 90 studies (published the year after The Good Life) confirmed that both loneliness (the subjective feeling of not having enough social connections) and social isolation (the objective reality of lacking social connections) negatively impact physical and mental health. This finding mattered because previous studies that drew a link between loneliness and negative health effects drew criticism, in part due to the studies’ limited scope. 

Like Waldinger and Schulz, this analysis suggests that loneliness is harmful because it’s a chronic stressor. However, it found that social isolation harms you more than loneliness does. One of the review’s authors proposes that this is because social isolation is more stress-inducing than loneliness. People who feel lonely but who have access to social connections are better able to handle the stress of loneliness because of the relationships they have. This theory supports Waldinger and Schulz’s argument that loneliness is bad for us because it used to be a death sentence: Feeling lonely is a warning sign to monitor our social isolation and make sure we haven’t been left behind to fend for ourselves.

We Don’t Prioritize Relationships

Waldinger and Schulz assert that many people struggle to prioritize positive relationships—despite their clear importance—for two related reasons. First, cultures worldwide often teach that financial success will guarantee happiness. As a result, we prioritize money over relationships. However, the idea that financial success guarantees happiness is mostly a myth. The authors acknowledge that if you don’t have enough money to cover fundamental expenses, such as food, then making more money increases your happiness. But once you make enough money to cover those fundamentals, making more money won’t make you happier.

How Money Impacts Happiness

Unlike Waldinger and Schulz, Morgan Housel suggests in The Psychology of Money that you may care about money in part because of how it impacts your relationships. Specifically, you may want money so you can buy status symbols because you think this will buy you respect. However, Housel argues that this is a mistake: You might think that people admiring your possessions indicates that they admire you, but in reality, these people are imagining how much people would admire them if they owned the same things. 

Like Waldinger and Schulz, Housel warns against constantly trying to make more money in pursuit of happiness. This is a losing game: Unless you’re the richest person in the world, someone will always have more money than you—so if you’re always comparing yourself to someone richer, you’ll never be satisfied. Moreover, constantly trying to make more can lead to you losing everything if you risk the money you have and need to make even more money that you don’t need. So figure out how much money will allow you to live your desired lifestyle (even if that’s slightly more than what covers your fundamental expenses), then stop chasing a more lavish lifestyle. 

Second, people struggle to prioritize relationships because we’re bad at “affective forecasting”—anticipating our emotional reactions to various events. Waldinger and Schulz explain that humans are biologically programmed to prioritize whatever provides the most obvious benefit—and often, the benefits of relationships are less obvious. Moreover, when making decisions, we tend to focus more on what might go wrong than what might go right. As a result, we often prioritize whatever will make us more money (which is obviously beneficial) rather than relationships (which might go terribly wrong and ruin our lives).   

(Shortform note: There may be additional reasons we tend to prioritize our careers over our relationships. Experts point out that we’re not just bad at anticipating our emotional reactions to events; we’re also bad at predicting how long we’ll feel those reactions. So you might chase a promotion because you think it’ll make you happy for a long time when, in reality, that boost is short-lived. Alternatively, Clayton Christensen suggests in How Will You Measure Your Life? that we may prioritize our careers over our relationships because our loved ones are less demanding than our boss. Thus, we pay less attention to our loved ones—and we risk not noticing that our relationships are going poorly until it’s too late to fix them.)

The Importance of Positive Relationships for a Good Life

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Robert Waldinger and Marc Schulz's "The Good Life" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full The Good Life summary:

  • That the key to a good life has nothing to do with your career or success
  • How to evaluate the current quality of your relationships
  • How to improve relationships with your friends, partner, family, and coworkers

Katie Doll

Somehow, Katie was able to pull off her childhood dream of creating a career around books after graduating with a degree in English and a concentration in Creative Writing. Her preferred genre of books has changed drastically over the years, from fantasy/dystopian young-adult to moving novels and non-fiction books on the human experience. Katie especially enjoys reading and writing about all things television, good and bad.

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