The Secret to a Happy Healthy Life


I recently read this entry in a local paper that allows readers to call in and leave anonymous messages of current and political import. Excuse the length of the following entry that I am reproducing here. I think it is important enough to reproduce in its entirety, because it bears some comment:

My parents had four daughters. We are all in our 60s now. Three of us earned master’s degrees. The happiest daughter is the daughter who spent a short time in college and married young. She has a wonderful husband and children and grandchildren. The other three are without husbands and can be very crabby. I know because I am one of them…. The three single sisters are all working because we have to work. Our married sister has a job, by choice, and loves her life. To all the 20-something girls out there… You cannot hug a diploma. A wall of degrees will not fill your heart with love. You will be alone night after night wondering what it would be like to have a nice guy at your side. Marriage is far better than a life of degrees.

Before commenting, I need to preface what I am going to say. Marriage is no guarantee of a happy life. Plenty of married people are unhappy. If that weren’t the case, the divorce rate would not perennially hover around the 50% mark. Marriage is no magic pill.

Gaining a college education is also nothing to snub. The reasons people go to college, however, are many: to get an education (duh!), because it is expected of them, to get a good job, because they don’t know what else to do, to find a spouse….

Looking back 40 years later with the kind of clarity that hindsight reveals puts those reasons into perspective, apparently. If only we could gain that perspective looking forward! But then, looking back may not really be 20/20 – unless you are looking back at a 75 year Harvard study.

A recent TED Talk by Robert Waldinger, What Makes a Good Life? Lessons from the Longest Study on Happiness, unveils some secrets to happiness, and they may not be what you think looking forward. In fact, the talk begins with the results of a survey of millennials asking them for their most important life goals. Over 80% said to get rich and another 50%+ said to get famous.

When I was in law school, I remember a professor in the first year ask a similar question: why did you go to law school. The responses were not tallied, but a large percentage said that they went to law to school to make a lot of money and many said to have influence, which seems consistent with the poll done of college students noted by Waldinger.

We all have our owns paths to take and decisions to make. We can’t see around the bend or over the horizon. That is just the way it is.

We are told that we must obtain a college degree and get a good job. We are told we must work hard and accumulate wealth. We nearly worship people of fame and influence and strive to be like them. Implicit in all of this is the belief that these are the paths to happiness, fulfillment and a good life.

If we only had a crystal ball! But maybe we do. The Harvard study is as close to a crystal ball as we may get. The study reveals that a good life is not about wealth or working harder or fame. The clearest message that can be gleaned from the 75 year study is that “good relationships keep us happier and healthier.”

The treasures to be stored up for a good life have nothing to do with ourselves, but with others – our families, our friends and our communities are the treasures we should seek to have good, fulfilling lives. “Relationships are good for us, and loneliness kills.”

Not just relationships, but good relationships, the quality of relationships, is the key. On the flip side, bad relationships are “toxic” and may take more of a toll on us than loneliness. Bad relationships can be worse than being alone.

This is not new information! “It is as old as the hills!”

The woman who wrote the lament in the local paper hit on this very thing. Happiness in life is not about the fulfillment of education, or career, or money. If those things are what make people happy, we would not see so many rich and famous people commit suicide.  The woman whose words I repeated at the top lamented the lack of meaningful relationship with a spouse, and the Harvard study reveals that the lack of meaningful relationships, generally, leads to unhappiness in life.

The other thing that occurs to me is that we do not need a crystal ball to see what makes for a happier, healthier life because already have a manual for our lives that points us in the right direction – the Bible. If you do not follow me, consider this:

The Bible tells us that we should not pursue the love of money, we should not covet things and we should not seek the praises of men (fame). It turns out these are not just moralistic sayings. Jesus called the Pharisees who were motivated by fame “white-washed tombs”, and it makes sense in light of the Harvard study. Fame is cold and dead. Money and possessions do not satisfy. Quality relationships make for a good life.

Jesus told us to lay up treasures in heaven. Laying up those treasures means loving your neighbor as yourself, giving the cloak off your back to the one who needs it, forgiving and turning the other cheek – all the things that make for good relationships.

There is much, much more in the Bible about relationships. In fact, from cover to cover, the whole thing is about relationships: relationship with God and with people. Jesus said the sum of all of the Scripture is to love God above all things and love your neighbor as your self. If you get something else out of it, your are missing the point!

People who focus on the moralistic “law” miss the main point of the Scripture, which is the importance of relationships with God and people. We see this theme when Jesus engages the Pharisees, who were the hyper-moralists and outwardly religious leaders of the time.

Not that the “law” is unimportant, but it is important not for the reasons the Pharisees thought. Keeping the law is not the point; having a good relationship with God and people is the important thing. The law reveals where we fall short, and that, in turn, should cause us to be humble and forgiving (as God forgives us). Those who have sought God’s forgiveness are no longer under the law, but have been brought into relationship with God (as children!) and are guided by the Spirit to love God and love people.

Laying treasures up in heaven suggests, also, that the reward is greater than a good life, though a good life is also the product of good relationships. The greatest and most fulfilling relationship, ultimately, is with God. In fact, out of that relationships flows a greater ability to connect with people, a greater strength to deny the self that often gets in the way of the best relationships, and to love others as we are loved.

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