Reevaluating Your Life to Understand Your Relationships

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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How much clarity do you have about the stage of life you’re in right now? Why is reevaluating your life and relationships crucial for your happiness?

In The Good Life, Robert Waldinger and Marc Schulz explore two frameworks for understanding your current relationships. They urge you to evaluate your stage of life and the shape that your relationships are in.

Continue reading to reevaluate your life with the authors’ practical frameworks.

Understanding the Life Stages

Waldinger and Schulz divide human life into four main stages: adolescence, young adulthood, midlife, and late life. They argue that understanding these stages will help you in reevaluating your life, understanding the challenges you’re facing, and being more empathetic to people in different life stages.

Waldinger and Schulz explain that adolescence occurs between the ages of 12 and 19 and is characterized by a struggle to establish one’s identity. Adolescents benefit greatly from having supportive adults in their lives, as these adults serve as exemplars of different lives one might live. However, adolescents themselves tend to prioritize relationships with their peers as they navigate friendships and start to have intimate, romantic relationships.

(Shortform note: Psychologist Erik Erikson also proposes that adolescence (12-18) is characterized by a struggle to establish one’s identity. Erikson suggests that this struggle manifests in two main areas: sexual relationships and occupational concerns (such as what they want to do with their lives). If an adolescent successfully overcomes this struggle, she will develop what Erikson calls “fidelity”—the ability to feel like herself while still conforming to societal expectations. Parents can contribute to this process by not comparing teens to other people. Additionally, set boundaries without attacking your kid; for example, don’t criticize their friends, as your child will interpret these criticisms as a personal attack.)

After adolescence comes young adulthood, which tends to occur between the ages of 20 and 40. Waldinger and Schulz write that young adults tend to experience a lot of stress as they struggle to find their footing in their careers and possibly create new families. Young adults need to be careful not to overwork themselves and neglect other people in their lives, such as their friends or their parents. 

Midlife usually occurs between the ages of 41 and 65. Waldinger and Schulz assert that midlife can seem stable to the point of being boring, as people in midlife usually have established careers and families. But people in midlife are often plagued by the thought that they haven’t done enough with their lives—even though their lives are half over. Getting beyond this concern requires that people in midlife reach the “generativity” stage, which is characterized by a focus on making a positive impact on others rather than a focus on improving one’s own life. 

(Shortform note: Erikson defines generativity slightly differently, arguing that it’s a desire to leave a legacy, and he points out that most people achieve it through parenthood—though you can also achieve it through other means. Erikson adds that if you are successful in your quest for generativity, you’ll develop “care,” the sense that you matter to others.) 

Finally, late life usually begins after the age of 66. Waldinger and Schulz explain that people in this stage are often preoccupied with how well they’ve lived, how well they can live the remainder of their lives, and the legacy they’ll leave. People in this stage tend to be happy, as they’ve gained the perspective necessary to prioritize what matters and ignore small stressors that don’t. But they must make an effort to maintain relationships that may naturally dissipate as they stop doing certain activities like working. They must also learn to accept any help they may need.

(Shortform note: In Being Mortal, Atul Gawande suggests that older people don’t accept help due to the type of help provided. He explains that older people tend to focus on what will make them happy in the present, but the people caring for them have a future-oriented outlook. As a result, caregivers may support medical interventions that extend the elderly person’s life or suggest that she create new relationships to replace those that naturally dissipate, even though she would prefer interventions that improve how well she feels in the present and wants to prioritize her oldest, deepest connections instead.) 

Evaluate Your Relationships

Now that we’ve shared how the life stage you’re in affects your relationships, we’ll discuss Waldinger and Schulz’s methodology for evaluating your “social fitness”—the current health of your relationships. The authors argue that understanding how often you see people now and how those people add to or subtract from your life will motivate you to make any necessary changes to your social life.

Waldinger and Schulz recommend that you begin by listing the people who make up your social circle. This likely will include people you love, such as your friends and family, even if you don’t see them as often as you’d like. But it will also likely include people you see regularly but aren’t particularly close to—such as the bartender at your local pub—or even people you actively dislike—such as that in-law you can’t stand. 

Next, Waldinger and Schulz suggest that you review both how often you see each person in your life and how each one makes you feel. Does being in this person’s company refresh and uplift you, or does it drain and depress you? If it’s the latter, is there any particular reason why, and is there something you can do about it? Are you happy with how often you see each person, or would you like to see more or less of them?

Third, Waldinger and Schulz suggest that you review the specific benefits you receive from each relationship. Some people provide love and sex, while others provide assistance when you’re struggling—such as when you don’t know what job to take. Some people help you feel safe, while others push you outside your comfort zone. There are some people you can talk about anything with and others you can rely on because they’re so familiar to you. Keep in mind that some people will provide multiple benefits, but several of them won’t provide all of them.

Reevaluating Your Life to Understand Your Relationships

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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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