Recently I watched an inspiring TED talk by Robert Waldinger on what constitutes a good life. He asked this very question to a group of people in their 20’s and majority of them had responses such as money, high achievement, and fame.
But according to research conducted by Waldinger, this couldn’t be further from the truth. In his long running study on happiness, Waldinger found that what actually brings the most satisfaction in life is the quality of our relationships.
When we surround ourselves with positive, loving relationships, whether it be with our friends, partner or family, we are happier, healthier, and more likely to live longer. Whereas people who feel lonely or are in toxic relationships, feel less satisfied and are more likely to suffer from poor health.
This got me thinking about my great aunt who he died earlier this year. I didn’t know her that well, but after her husband passed away she developed severe social anxiety and would refuse to leave the house.
She was in her late 70’s so other than some signs of ageing, nothing was physically wrong with her, however emotionally and mentally she was struggling.
She lived like this for several years until one day she refused to get out of bed. She refused to eat. It was like she had given up on life. She was living in a retirement home at the time so she had nurses and doctors checking in on her, but they found nothing wrong. My family tried to console her, but she wasn’t really interested.
Even though nothing was wrong with her physically, she died in her sleep a few days later. To me, looking from the outside, it was almost like she had willed her death. It was almost like the emotional suffering had grown too much to bare and she was able to will herself away.
Or perhaps she knew her time was coming, and perhaps laying in bed was her way of dealing with the end to her physical body.
Either way, I definitely think loneliness played a role in all of this. It wasn’t that she didn’t have people around her who loved and cared about her, but perhaps she didn’t have anyone she felt a strong bond or connection to.
As Waldinger emphasises in his talk, it is not the quantity of relationships you keep but the quality of them that counts.
Losing a spouse is always challenging, but especially when you are older it can also be hard to find the motivation to create a new life for yourself. It can be hard to find the will and confidence to try new things and meet new people.
It’s not just those who have lost a spouse that are suffering from loneliness either. According to Waldinger, 1 in 5 Americans report feeling lonely. That’s a huge percentage of the population.
We are social creatures. Even though we are brought into this world alone and we die alone, it is our connection with others that creates a good life.
It is not about having hundreds of friends, really it is just about having one or even two people that you can talk to, depend on, and joke with.
While money and fame seem like nice ideas, in the long run they don’t compare to the type of relationships that you choose to keep in your life.
Finding good people to connect with is not always easy, but it really begins with you. As spiritual author Wayne Dyer once said- “you cannot be lonely if you like the person you are alone with.”
When you learn to love yourself, it gives you the confidence to go out there and connect with people. After all, if you don’t love yourself how can you expect other people to?
It really seems that no matter the lesson in life, no matter the questions you have, the answers can always be found in self-love.