Before I went to college, these questions meant nothing. After entering, they meant everything. As a freshman, I was fortunate to take a full year course in the history of western civilization. Early on we were introduced to culture of ancient Greece.
It was there, largely through the ideas of Socrates as described in the Dialogues of Plato, that I began to understand what the good life meant. Socrates claimed an unexamined life is not worth living, that a good life is one of relentless questioning and searching for the truth.
That is what a good life has always meant to me—teaching, doing research, writing. Of course, not everyone thinks that’s what a good life means.
When I asked a good friend what a good life meant to her, she replied working in an important job. Another said, it was being happy. A recent survey of millennials found that 80 percent said that their major life goal was to get rich. Another 50 percent of the same young adults said another major life goal was to become famous.
Robert Waldinger, who is now the fourth director of the 75-year-old Harvard study on adult development, reports (Tedx Lecture November, 2015) that a good life is built on good relationships.
This remarkable study began in 1938 with a group of Harvard sophomores. A comparison group consisted of boys from Boston’s poorest neighborhoods. About 60 of the original 724 men are still alive, still participating in the study, most of them in their 90s.
Throughout the course of the study, the men were interviewed at various intervals in their homes. Their medical conditions were tracked, their blood was drawn, more recently their brains were scanned, and the investigators talked with their children.
Waldinger says there were three three lessons learned from the study. First, social connections are “really good for us” and loneliness is toxic. Second, it’s not just the number of friends we have, but the quality of our close relationships that matters. Third, good relationships not only benefit our health, they also “protect our brains.”
In a way, these lessons have been known for ages. What I find striking in the study, however, is that nowhere is the importance of a “life of the mind” mentioned. Whatever every happened to the role of the examined life?
Can a life of reflections be built in the absence of good relationships? In so far as I know, this question is never discussed. I wouldn’t expect such a life to play much of a role for the comparison group of boys from poor Boston neighborhoods. But I surely would have expected it to be mentioned by some of the Harvard graduates, even though most are in their 90s now.
Maybe I overemphasize the importance of “a life of the mind.” Maybe I’m simply out of touch with contemporary culture. (That is definitely the case.) Maybe I am fortunate to have a close relationship to support the life I lead.
So I know that one can live an examined life, while at the same time having at least one good relationship. And I imagine that those who don’t have a close relationship can still carve out the same kind of life. In a word, perhaps close relationships are neither necessary or sufficient for a good life.