The Good Life: Lessons from the World's Longest Scientific Study of Happiness, by Robert Waldinger and Marc Schultz. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2023, 341 pages, $29.99.

For the past three decades, psychiatrist Robert Waldinger and clinical psychologist Mark Schultz have served as the director and associate director, respectively, of the Harvard Study of Adult Development (HSAD), which “has followed two generations of individuals from the same families for more than eighty years” (ix). This longitudinal study began by focusing on two groups of young males from the Boston area: 268 sophomores from Harvard College and 456 fourteen-year-old boys from disadvantaged neighborhoods. One might expect that the Harvard students’ privileges and prospects would have made their pursuit of happiness more successful compared to the boys in the other group, but this was not invariably the case. The HSAD reveals that there are other, more significant predictors of a person’s long term health and happiness.

In their book The Good Life, Waldinger and Schultz draw upon the many interviews conducted over the course of the HSAD to explore the question of what makes for a good life. The basic insight that they derive is that good relationships are the key to happiness. Throughout the book, they consider different facets of our relationships and use examples drawn from the lives of the study participants to illustrate the points they make.

The reason why healthy relationships are linked to happiness is because human beings are social creatures. While Waldinger and Schultz explain this as the result of evolutionary history, Christians know that it is rooted in God’s declaration at creation that “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him” (Gen. 2:18). The Good Life shows that through the various stages of life there are many ways in which we are helped by the connections we have with others. Stable and supportive relationships provide us with security, equip us to become responsible adults, help us turn our focus outside ourselves, embolden us to take chances in the pursuit of new goals, and support us in times of adversity.

One contemporary challenge to relationships that Waldinger and Schultz address is the widespread use of social media and digital technology. With the advent of these tools, even our closest interactions are often “filtered through devices and software whose design subtly—and sometimes not-so-subtly—shapes each interaction” (127), and it is not clear whether the net effect is to deepen or inhibit our ability to connect to each other. While such technologies do bring benefits, the authors warn of the detrimental developmental effects that they have on children and stress the inability of virtual tools to duplicate the experience of being physically present with others. Common sense advice is given on how to use digital tech in a wise manner.

The chapter “Social Fitness” provides guidance for evaluating the health of our relationships and makes three practical suggestions for how to improve and deepen them. First, we should be generous in our dealings with others, thinking first and foremost not about what we hope to receive from our relationships but about the time and attention that we can give to others. Second, we need to resist the tendency to let past negative experiences in relationships dominate our lives and prevent us from taking the risks needed to make new and better connections with others. And third, we should cultivate curiosity and ask questions of others, as this “opens up avenues of conversation and knowledge that we never knew were there” and “helps others feel understood and appreciated” (113).

The authors offer advice on how to deal with challenging situations in our relationships, providing a model that we can use to process our emotional reactions when difficulties arise. Using the acronym W.I.S.E.R. (watch, interpret, select, engage, reflect), they walk through five steps we can take to think through what is happening, why we are responding in the way we are, what we should do, how to address the challenge, and how to assess how our effort went. While we may be inclined to avoid confronting the difficulties that arise in our relationships, the authors note that this can lead to other problems and leave us in relational ruts. They also remind us that the differences and disagreements that we experience in our closest relationships can be opportunities to grow.

Several chapters focus on relationships with spouses, family, and friends, explaining and illustrating the challenges and benefits of these intimate connections. Consideration is also given to everyday encounters with people whom we do not know very well. An entire chapter is devoted to relationships in the workplace. This bears consideration given that many people spend significantly more time at work than they do in activities with friends and family. On the one hand, our work can contribute to our happiness by giving us a sense that our lives matter and that others value our contributions. On the other hand, when a person’s workplace relationships are strained, the unhappiness he experiences at work will likely spill over into his life outside of work. While there are things in our workplaces that are beyond our control, the authors’ advice on how to make the most of work relationships is well worth considering.

In addition to the workplace, Waldinger and Schultz note the positive impact that interactions with casual acquaintances and strangers can have on our state of mind. Chatting with someone on the subway, taking an extra moment to have a meaningful interchange with a store clerk, or greeting the mailman may not seem like much, but research indicates that such seemingly insignificant human connections do contribute to a person’s happiness. A kind word and a smiling face make more of a difference than we realize.

Given the importance of relationships for happiness, it is no surprise that isolation is often connected with unhappiness. The authors discuss this at various points in the book, and they repeatedly call attention to the negative impact of the suppression of in-person interactions during the Covid crisis. Unfortunately, they imply that the damage was done by the pandemic itself, apparently accepting the oft-touted notion that we had no choice but to respond to Covid in the way we did. This is not true. The unprecedented mitigation strategy employed during Covid had been rejected by eminent public health scientists long before this pandemic struck,[1] and many scientists and medical practitioners opposed the strategy while it was being implemented.[2] Now that the pandemic is over, numerous studies[3] have shown that the novel mitigation measures did no good while bringing about a massive amount of personal, relational, social, economic, and political harm.[4] This dovetails with Waldinger and Schultz’s assertion that people who have a sense of disconnection from others are less healthy and have shorter life spans than those who are more connected to family, friends, and community (21). Considering this, it is disappointing that the authors do not at least raise the question of whether mandated health protocols that radically suppress human interactions and train people to view others primarily as potential vectors of disease are respectful of human dignity and compatible with the fundamental principles of medical ethics. Waldinger and Schultz are willing to apply their research to other matters of public policy (279). Why would they not do so with respect to the Covid policies?

There are points where The Good Life is in clear conflict with Christian beliefs. One reason for this is because the authors define the good life as “a state of deep well-being in which a person feels that their life has meaning and purpose” (18, italics original). While this is better than a hedonistic conception of happiness, it still falls short of the biblical perspective, because it makes a person’s feelings the standard for what is good. Feelings can be misleading. The authors’ failure to reckon with this sometimes leads them to deem things that are immoral to be good. For example, one of the study participants is presented as finding the good life by ending her marriage to someone she described as “one of the nicest men on the planet,” so that she could embrace a gay identity (140). The authors also call a drag-queen-ballroom-dancing community “a rich example of nontraditional family,” because of how it “offers an enduring social sanctuary for those who have been rejected by and marginalized within their families of origin, religious institutions, and society at large” (202). Of course, people should always be treated with dignity, but this does not mean that they should always be affirmed for acting on their feelings and desires. God’s law is the objective standard of what is good, and we are not free to call things good when God calls them evil (cf. Deut. 22:5; Matt. 19:9; Rom. 1:26–27). The fact that the prevailing cultural winds of LGBTQ+ ideology are reflected in a book like The Good Life demonstrates fallen man’s proclivity to value social acceptance over truth. Christians should remember that we are by no means immune to this temptation.

In his common grace, God bestows ingenuity and insight upon both believers and unbelievers, so that secular enterprises can be a source of knowledge and temporal blessing for all people (see Gen. 4:20–22; Acts 17:28). This means Christians can benefit from the lessons that Waldinger and Schultz derive from the HSAD. Having said that, we need to be aware of the ways in which worldly notions affect some of their judgments and advice. We also need to remember that while the good relationships that we have with other people certainly do strengthen and enrich our lives in this world, the things of this world will not endure forever. The key insight that is missing from The Good Life is that our longing for human connection points to the fact that we were made for relationship with God, and that being reconciled to him through Christ is the only way to find lasting happiness (see Ps. 16:11).


[1] See Thomas V. Inglesby, Jennifer B. Nuzzo, Tara O’Toole, and D.A. Henderson, “Disease Mitigation Measures in the Control of Pandemic Influenza,” in Biosecurity and Bioterrorism: Biodefense Strategy, Practice, and Science, vol. 4, no. 4, (New Rochelle, NY: Mary Ann Liebert, Inc., 2006), 373, https://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi= Dr. Henderson was the epidemiologist who led the successful campaign to eradicate smallpox.

[2] See “The Great Barrington Declaration,” https://gbdeclaration.org. This document was authored by epidemiologists from Harvard, Oxford, and Stanford universities. It has been signed by over 60,000 public health and medical scientists and medical practitioners. Accessed March 11, 2023.

[3] The findings of two especially notable meta-analyses are summarized in these articles: Joel Zinberg, “No Benefit, Many Costs,” City Journal (February 4, 2022), https://www.city-journal.org/new-study-finds-covid-lockdowns-had-no-benefit; John Tiemey, “Approximately Zero,” City Journal (February 17, 2023), https://www.city-journal.org/new-cochrane-study-on-masks-and-covid.

[4] The problems with the pandemic response are adeptly explained in Aaron Kheriaty, The New Abnormal: The Rise of the Biomedical Security State (Washington, DC: Regnery, 2022). Dr. Kheriaty taught psychiatry at the University of California-Irvine (UCI) School of Medicine, was the director of the Medical Ethics Program at UCI Health and was the chairman of the ethics committee at the California Department of State Hospitals.

Andy Wilson is an OPC minister and serves as the pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Laconia, New Hampshire.  Ordained Servant Online, June/July, 2023.

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Ordained Servant: June–July 2023


Also in this issue

Two Paths to Happiness, and Why Only One Can Lead to a Happy End

The Voice of the Good Shepherd: God’s Medium: Tongues of Fire, Chapter 5 [1]

Commentary on the Book of Discipline of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Chapter 5

Getting to Know Your Pastor: Letters to a Younger Ruling Elder, No. 6

Muddying the Baptismal Waters? A Review Article

The Holy Spirit by Robert Letham


Sonnet LXXII

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