Living the Good Life...The Search For Happiness
For 85 years Harvard has been conducting the longest in-depth longitudinal study on adult development (The Harvard Study of Adult Development). The basic premise of this study is “What makes people happy…what constitutes a good life?” During those 85 years scientists have been tracking the health and well-being of individuals hoping to reveal clues to leading a healthy and happy life. y
The study has had four directors over the years. It began in 1938 with scientists tracking 268 Harvard sophomores during the Great Depression. Only a few of those original participants are still alive, all now in their 90’s. Some of those original recruits became well known people, including President John F. Kennedy and Washington Post editor, Ben Bradlee.
Women were not in the original 268 participants because Harvard was still an all-male school. But the participants quickly became diversified, including inner city residents, disadvantaged youths from troubled families, off-spring of the original cohort group, and women. These scientists over the years have watched the participants fall in and out of love, overcome failures, become parents, undergo trauma, and experience serious illnesses. They watched as participants became best-selling authors, Senate candidates, doctors, teachers, schizophrenics, criminals, and complete failures.
When the study first began, the first director leaned towards presuming genetics and biology would be the determining factors. Physical attributes, intellectual ability, and personality traits were examined. They studied the functioning of organs, brain activity, and later MRIs and DNA, but the continued results over the years were more than they bargained for.
No matter what method of testing was used, or what parameters were measured, there has consistently been one simple and profound conclusion throughout the years. Good relationships lead to health and happiness!
The revelation was astounding: Taking care of your body is important, but taking care of your relationships is critical to happiness. Genetics, personality, IQ, longevity in families, health, early trauma, family life, money, success, fame, beauty, prestige…all proved to be much less important than the quality of relationships in determining happiness for the person.
Cultivating close and meaningful relationships is critical to living the “good life.” The quality of the participants’ relationships was a much greater indicator than cholesterol levels, genetics, etc. in determining how long and how healthily a person lived.
The study has found that how happy we are in relationships has a powerful influence on our health. The bottom line is this: loneliness kills! It is as powerful as obesity, smoking or alcoholism. Mother Teresa went so far as to say the west has an epidemic of loneliness. Who can argue as we see those around us spending an average of 11 hours per day interacting with inanimate objects like cell phones or TV? We need to stop and realize that for the best life, the most happiness, we need to invest in our relationships.
The only problem with that is people can be difficult. They can have different opinions and different beliefs. They can be annoying. Bottom line is people are tough and relationships are hard! But if relationships are a key to leading the “happy, good life,” we need to find a way to deepen, strengthen, and repair relationships.
This past Sunday, our pastor, Matt Fulmer taught on a technique Jesus used in developing relationships. I found it so compelling, I asked his permission to share some of that information. Matt stated that a big key to strengthening and repairing relationships is asking questions. There is power in asking questions. In fact, the method of asking questions is believed to be the greatest communication practice in all of history. Socrates, himself, used it.
I found the statistics Matt gave to be amazing. Jesus asked a lot of questions to people. I have always thought of Jesus as the “answer guy.” But in reality, Jesus asked a lot more questions than he answered. He asked 307 questions to other people that were central to his life and teaching. Other people asked him only 183 questions, and of those 183 questions, he only answered 3! This means for every question he answered, he asked 100 times more questions. That’s mind boggling to someone who thinks of Jesus as the “answer guy.”
You might be thinking, “Why would Jesus ask a lot of questions if he already knew the answers?” As I looked at the various questions he asked, I found them to be his method of engagement, his method of connecting with others. He forced people to think. He showed interest without judging. His questions pointed out truths and built relationships. His questions showed that he recognized the other person, that he cared.
Take a look at some of Jesus’ questions:
· Who do people say that I am?
· Who do you say I am?
· Can any one of you add even a single hour to your life by worrying?
· Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in yours?
· If you love only those who love you, what makes you any better since even a wicked person does that?
· (to the Samaritan woman) Will you give me a drink?
· What do you think?
· What do you want me to do for you?
· Do you love me?
· Will you really lay down your life for me?
He told stories and asked a lot of great questions. But he never asked “when” questions. And then, he was also a good listener. Asking questions is a good way to build meaningful connections and intimacy. Questions can help deepen a relationship, express empathy and understanding, and show interest.
It is a method we could all get better at. Curiosity is your friend. Ask open-ended questions that require more than a yes or no and watch bridges being built and relationships transforming. But you must be ready to listen…and that takes time. Too often we find people who ask a question only because they want to answer it themselves. They may ask, “How are you?” But before you can finish your answer, they have butted in to tell you all about their problems, their successes, their issues.
Listening is an art! Questions create the connecting mechanism. Don’t break that connection by not listening or interrupting. Provide a safe place for someone to express vulnerability, to open up and give their perspective without judgment. Show interest in how they see it.
The power of questions is undeniable, especially in arguments. If you can give up your right to present YOUR side, or defend yourself, a question can diffuse the argument quickly. (e.g. Can you help me understand? What can I do to support you?) Perhaps the time you least want to ask a question is the most important time to do so.
The people we do life with are important factors in our happiness. They are the key to sparking the “good life” while we are here. As I challenge myself, I would challenge you to take yourself off cruise control. It takes effort. It takes time. Be curious. Don’t give advice unless asked. Don’t solve. Just try to understand. Show interest. Find someone you want to have a deeper relationship with and ask open-ended questions. Create real conversations.
It begins one person at a time. So often I find myself wanting to make a difference. It’s hard to remember that we do that one person at a time. Jesus poured his life into 12 men. If you want deeper friendships, be a better friend. Ask questions and take the time to listen. And with a sense of wonder, watch that relationship deepen.
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