The Good Life by Robert Waldinger and Marc Schulz: Recap

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Would you like to have stronger friendships? What challenges should you be prepared for during this stage of your life?

In The Good Life, Robert Waldinger and Marc Schulz define a good life as one that depends on good relationships. To help you live your best life possible, they provide tips on how to improve your relationships with your spouse, family, coworkers, and friends.

Read below for an overview of The Good Life by Robert Waldinger and Marc Schulz.

The Good Life by Robert Waldinger and Marc Schulz

Many of us believe that our happiness depends on how successful we are in our careers. But, in The Good Life, Robert Waldinger and Marc Schulz argue that the key to a good life is to cultivate good relationships. They draw this conclusion from years of directing the Harvard Study of Adult Development. (Waldinger is the study’s current director, while Schulz is the study’s co-director.)

The Harvard Study is the world’s longest-running longitudinal research study on how adults develop. The study originated in 1938, when two independent groups of researchers who wanted to know what makes people successful recruited two groups of study participants: 268 male students at Harvard College and 456 boys from inner-city Boston. Over the years, the study expanded greatly in scope and now includes over 2,000 people—including the spouses and descendants of the original participants. 

The Harvard Study is unique not just for its length and scope but also its methodology. Unlike most longitudinal studies, which ask participants to remember what happened in their lives and so are susceptible to the fallibility of memory, the Harvard Study learns about the participants’ lives as they are now. The research team does so by sending participants detailed questionnaires every two years, reviewing health records every five years, and interviewing participants in person every 15 years. 

As a result, the Harvard Study has a rich trove of data that led Waldinger and Schulz to conclude that relationships are essential to a good life. This conclusion is supported by several other studies that include more diverse groups of people. 

Understanding the Good Life

Knowing that relationships help you achieve a good life isn’t helpful unless you understand what a good life is. In this section, we’ll explore what constitutes a good life, how it helps us, and why we’re so bad at doing what’s necessary to live it. 

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. 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). 

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. 

Know Where You Are in Life

Now that we’ve discussed why relationships are central to happiness, we’ll share Waldinger and Schulz’s advice on understanding where you stand. In this section, we’ll explore two frameworks for understanding your current relationships. First, we’ll describe the life stages we all experience so you can better understand what you and others in your life might be going through. Then, we’ll share how to evaluate the current state of your relationships.    

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 better understand the challenges you’re facing in your life and be 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.

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. 

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.

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.

How to Improve Your Relationships in General

Now that we’ve shared Waldinger and Schulz’s tips for understanding the current health of your relationships, we’ll discuss their tips for improvement. In this section, we’ll share two things you can do to improve any relationship: Pay better attention and replace bad habits. 

Pay Better Attention

Waldinger and Schulz assert that paying better attention to your relationships can help you improve them. In the modern world, our brains have grown accustomed to constant distraction from our devices. As a result, we struggle to maintain our focus on a single thing—including whoever we’re spending time with. This lack of engagement hampers our ability to connect with others.  

So how can you pay better attention to the people you’re with? Waldinger and Schulz recommend that you improve your ability to be present in general (and therefore, present with others) by practicing mindfulness. To do so, make it a point in your daily life to spend some time noticing things that haven’t captured your attention before in places you frequent—perhaps the breeze in your office. 

Waldinger and Schulz add that you can apply this practice in your relationships: When speaking with someone, ask yourself what you might not be noticing and use that gap to guide your conversation. For example, if a friend is unusually upset about your tardiness, probe a bit deeper—perhaps your chronic lateness is getting on their nerves, or they’re upset because they fought with their mother. Studies indicate that the act of intentionally trying to empathize and connect with others can improve your relationship. 

Additionally, Waldinger and Schulz suggest that you minimize the potential damage of your screen use. When using social media, prioritize communicating over browsing; the latter can make you feel worse about your own life because you’re comparing your reality to the highlights that others post online. If you notice that your screen time negatively affects your mood, decrease the time you spend on your devices. Ask the people closest to you whether your screen time bothers them; if so, reevaluate it. Finally, create pockets of time when you don’t check your devices at all so you can focus fully on those who matter most and also evaluate how you feel when you take a break from screens.

Replace Bad Habits

Waldinger and Schulz say that you can also improve your relationships by replacing bad relationship habits. They explain that most of us have bad relationship habits; namely, we default to a particular pattern of behavior, or “coping style,” whenever we feel strain. Unfortunately, these defaults can harm us and our relationships; for example, the authors’ research suggests that if you tend to distance yourself from your problems, you won’t be as happy as someone who confronts their problems.

The default pattern, or habit, that you fall into may seem immutable and out of your control. But Waldinger and Schulz explain that in reality, how you handle a particular situation involves a clear process over which you have some control. Whenever you face an external stressor, you feel some way about it and so you respond with a reaction. For example, if your partner is late for your date (stressor), you may feel neglected and react coldly when they finally arrive. This process occurs so quickly that it feels automatic—but if you can interrupt it and choose to behave in a way that strays from your default, you might be able to improve your relationships.

How to Improve Specific Relationships

Now that we’ve discussed Waldinger and Schulz’s strategies for improving your relationships in general, we’ll discuss their strategies for improving specific types of relationships. In this section, we’ll discuss the unique characteristics and challenges of your relationships with your partner, your family, your colleagues, and your friends, and how to improve each type.

Your Relationship With Your Partner

Waldinger and Schulz assert that a positive and long-lasting relationship with a romantic partner can provide comfort to your life. Psychologists have found that adults who feel like they have a “secure base”—someone they can rely on for comfort and support no matter what—recover faster from stressful situations. 

Waldinger and Schulz name several techniques for improving your relationship with your partner. First, pay attention to and thank your partner for the little things they do. Doing so will improve your impression of them (because you’re paying attention to their positive qualities) and your partner’s mood (because they’ll be happy you noticed). Second, try new things together. You’ll see your partner in a new light, which will increase your admiration of them.  

Third, practice sharing all parts of yourself with your partner—even those you’re afraid to. Waldinger and Schulz explain that in times of conflict, you may be tempted to hide your true feelings from your partner in an effort to protect yourself or to stop fighting. However, the authors assert that it’s better to lean into your vulnerability. When both partners share their true selves with each other, their connection deepens.

Your Relationship With Your Family

Waldinger and Schulz assert that having a positive relationship with the family you grew up in heavily impacts your life. After all, you’ve known these people your whole life, so they provide a type of support that you cannot find anywhere else.

However, Waldinger and Schulz clarify that this doesn’t necessarily mean that you had a happy childhood. The authors acknowledge that our childhoods dramatically impact our ability to maintain healthy relationships—primarily because, as kids, we learn from our families how to handle our emotions. But, as the authors point out, we can also unlearn the negative patterns our families taught us and replace them with healthier patterns.

According to Waldinger and Schulz, a key step to unlearning these patterns is to be open to the possibility that people will surprise you. In both familial and non-familial relationships, doing this frees you up to perceive when people aren’t behaving as badly as you expect, which can help break down damaging assumptions you learned as a child. This openness is particularly helpful in familial relationships because it encourages us to notice and acknowledge when our family members have undergone personal growth—something most of us struggle to recognize in people we’ve known our whole lives. 

For example, say your mother constantly criticized your dad when you were a kid. So as an adult, you develop a negative pattern of regularly criticizing the people you love. One day when you’re grown, you notice that your father bought the wrong brand of milk. But instead of loudly criticizing him, your mother simply puts the milk away. You only noticed this small change because you were open to the possibility that your parents could change. Not only do you reconsider your belief that your mother constantly criticizes her family, but you also reconsider how you behave when your husband messes up—and the next time he does, you remember your mom’s gesture and choose not to criticize him.

Another key to improving your relationships, according to Waldinger and Schulz, is to have regularly set family time to ensure that you continue to connect with each other despite how busy life gets. If you’re all living in the same place, the authors recommend instituting regular family meals. If not, having a regular video meeting can help maintain some connection, too. 

Your Relationship With Your Coworkers

Waldinger and Schulz argue that having supportive relationships with your coworkers can make a big positive difference in your life. The authors note that most people divide their lives into work and non-work time. But in reality, your happiness at work has a big impact on the rest of your life.  

Since people spend so much time at work, having social relationships with colleagues can prevent loneliness—which, as we saw previously, can damage our health. If a work occurrence negatively affects your mood, that bad mood often remains even when you return home—and so work events can damage your familial relationships.

So Waldinger and Schulz suggest that you change your perspective on your work relationships. Instead of avoiding possible connections with your coworkers, think about how you could develop relationships with or deepen existing relationships with your colleagues. Then, put those ideas into practice. For example, if you love books and notice that a colleague you don’t know well is always reading, strike up a conversation about books with that person.  

Waldinger and Schulz acknowledge that sometimes, this is easier said than done. You may struggle to befriend coworkers if you work remotely. Alternatively, you may be reluctant to befriend people at a different managerial level because you don’t want that hierarchy to potentially damage your personal relationship. However, the authors argue that developing relationships anyway will improve both your happiness and the quality of your work—especially in the latter case, because the only way to develop mentor/mentee relationships is to connect across the corporate hierarchy

But what if it’s too late to develop relationships with your coworkers? If you’ve retired, Waldinger and Schulz propose that you seek out regular social connections and something that brings you fulfillment. The authors explain that many people find these connections and fulfillment at their jobs—so when they retire and lose both, they struggle to adjust. Having a replacement source of both will help you maintain your happiness. For example, getting a volunteer position that utilizes your professional skills could help you feel fulfilled and bring more people into your life. 

Your Relationship With Your Friends

Waldinger and Schulz say that many of us don’t prioritize our friendships. They point out that while children value their friends, adults often neglect their friends in favor of more immediate concerns such as their family or their work. This is especially true if the relationship developed when both people were in the same phase of life but one has since moved on; for example, if one college friend is still struggling in her career while the other is financially successful.

However, Waldinger and Schulz argue that neglecting our friendships is a mistake, as they’re more important than most of us think. The authors point to several studies indicating that close friendships have a significant impact on both our physical and mental health. Notably, your friends improve how well you handle stressful events: Friends make difficult situations seem better than they are, and they reduce both how long and how strongly we feel these events’ effects.

Waldinger and Schulz add that it’s not just our close friendships, or “strong ties,” that positively affect our lives. A growing body of research indicates that “weak ties”—infrequent and low-intensity relationships—also provide unexpected benefits. When you cultivate connections with people you don’t know well, such as the friend of your friend or the cashier at the corner store you frequent, you gain access to broader networks that you might not have access to otherwise. For example, studies show that the more weak ties you have, the better your chances of finding a good job. 

Waldinger and Schulz suggest several strategies to help you improve your relationships. If you’d like to increase your weak ties, look at your existing social group. Who do you regularly interact with that you don’t know well? If you’d like to improve your close friendships, reconsider your patterns. Many of us fall into a rut in our friendships. Think about what you normally do or talk about with your current friends, and mix things up if need be. For example, if you always go to trivia night with your friends, maybe you want to go hiking instead.

Additionally, pay attention to whether you’re the one usually providing or receiving emotional support in the relationship. If there’s an imbalance, think of whether you can provide more (by listening more) or receive more (by asking for more support).

The Good Life by Robert Waldinger and Marc Schulz: Recap

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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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