BY ANN RANDALL
That my 88-year-old neighbor Bill built himself a treehouse last year is no surprise to anyone who knows him.
Every weekday at 7:30 a.m., he fires up his truck for the three-minute drive to Hot Shots Java. There he joins a longstanding group of regulars on the coffeeshop’s sidewalk—many of them the town’s emeritus business owners and leaders. Sometimes their spouses and partners tag along. Occasionally a passerby joins in. They discuss town politics and news. They solve the world’s problems. When one of them is an unexpected no show, a call gets made to make sure all is well.
Bill lives his life with a vigor that is enviable. He got married this year to a lovely woman with a wide circle of friends. His annual birthday bash is an opportunity for everyone—our neighborhood, the morning coffee regulars, and his (and now her) multitude of friends to celebrate our good fortune in knowing him. Bill knows how to live a good life.
For the past 85 years, the groundbreaking Harvard Study of Adult Development has been researching what it takes to thrive as Bill does. It is the world’s longest in‑depth longitudinal study of human life and its findings were published in the 2023 New York Times bestselling book, The Good Life, authored by the project’s directors, Marc Schulz and Robert Waldinger. Chock-full of the lived experiences of study participants as well as research, conclusions, and advice, it is an engaging and worthy third act read.
Beginning in 1938, the health and habits of the study’s original 724 subjects (a group that included President John F. Kennedy), their spouses, partners, and more than 1,300 descendants have been continuously tracked using interview questionnaires, videos, and medical results.
The oldest of the group lived through adverse historic events including the effects of the Great Depression and military service in World War II, and the Korean and Vietnam Wars. Researchers discovered common threads among those who felt they lived a happy life, even those who suffered loss and trauma. They had relationships. Not just any relationships, but warm, reciprocal ones. And a sense of purpose. As participants aged, their payoff for having both was improved mental and physical health including fewer incidents of inflammatory conditions like diabetes and heart disease. The study’s findings held true across gender, class, wealth, and status differences.
Bill is an inveterate, energetic builder and tinkerer. He has a small collection of British cars needing constant maintenance and friends who want to help. The entire neighborhood held our collective breath watching him climb a ladder to build that treehouse for his 87th birthday bash. He’s responsible for much of the signage, murals, and beautification in our community. This past summer he single-handedly painted the concrete steps leading to uptown because he decided they needed a jolt of color. He refuses to describe himself as retired.
For older adults, our work was once a source of relationships and purpose. We spent a chunk of our waking hours interacting with employees, colleagues, and clients. The Harvard research found that no matter what the job, conditions or pay, people who had friends at work were more engaged than those who didn’t. And those who fared the best in retirement found other ways to replace the social connections and purpose that sustained them at work.
For 46 years I worked in education surrounded by smart, passionate people. A few were good friends. Others were professional confidants and cheerleaders. I wondered how I would ever replace that supportive orbit once I was no longer working, and felt lucky when many of us became retirees about the same time. We helped each other navigate that first year’s downshift from occupational overdrive into the new decisions we faced. How to make the Medicare choice? Should I downsize my home? What volunteer opportunities are there?
Now that my former collegial web has settled into their post-work lives, I’m grateful for social media that keeps us connected. We marvel online over each other’s travels, offer support for new hobbies, and thumbs up comments about the state of the world. Sometimes we meet for wine.
The study’s longevity mapping revealed important age developmental tasks that enhanced the relationships and sense of purpose of the happiest participants. During midlife (ages 41-65), they looked beyond their working and parenting years. They asked themselves questions like, “Who are the people and purposes I care about and how can I invest in them?” In late life (ages 66+), the authors say the most satisfied older adults were better at maximizing highs and minimizing lows. They “feel less hassled by the little things that go wrong and are better at knowing when something is important and when it is not.” They prioritized choices according to the amount of time they believed they had left.
Undergirding the most successful navigators of life stages, challenges, and external events was a supportive web of relationships. How long you’ve known the other person or how frequently you see them are not as important as the support you give and receive. Participants described their most valued relationships as “someone you can count on” and “someone who adds value to my life.” But it also turns out lesser relationships can contribute to a thriving, healthier life.
Bill drives to the local hardware store daily—sometimes three times a day. He chats up the clerks, says hi to customers he knows, and checks out the newest gadgets. I stop for a latte on my daily walk, as much for the comforting routine of a morning chat with my favorite barista as for the caffeine. Those interactions contribute to our relationship support quota. “Casual friendships may be the most overlooked relationships we have,” say the authors. “These are the relationships we may not turn to when we’re in distress, but that nonetheless provide us with jolts of good feeling or energy during our days, as well as a sense of connection to larger communities.”
Using the study’s most useful interview questions, The Good Life outlines helpful activities for readers to assess the quality of their own relationship web. Their research identified seven key elements of an optimal support system—safety and security; learning and growth; emotional closeness and confiding; identity affirmation and shared experience; romantic intimacy; informational and practical help; and fun and relaxation.
Eighty-five years of research data prove it’s never too late to strengthen the relationships you already have or to build new ones. The COVID years were a reminder that no one is truly self-sufficient. “We can’t confide in ourselves, romance ourselves, mentor ourselves or help ourselves move a sofa,” say Waldinger and Schulz. “We need others to interact with and to help us, and we flourish when we provide that same connection and support to others.” That’s how to live a good life.
Ann Randall is a freelance writer, organizational consultant, and independent traveler who loves venturing to out-of-the-way locales, from Azerbaijan to Zimbabwe. Retired from a career as a teacher and union organizer in public education, she now observes international elections, does volunteer work in India, and writes regularly for 3rd Act, Northwest Travel & Life, West Sound Home & Garden, Fibre Focus, and Dutch the Magazine.
Read these autobiographies on others who know how to live a good life by making the most out of their third acts!
Resilience in the Face of Loss Leads to a Happy Life: Debbie Blount is a 64-year-old, widowed, first-generation, spirited college athlete with no math skills, a wicked sense of humor, and caregiver for her mother.
My Third Act with Business in ‘Mind’: Can we navigate life in our third act with business in Mind? Notice the capital “M,” which continues to transform my entire life and enterprise. Let me explain.
A Wine Escape: Starting a winery requires only a love for the fantasy of winemaking. Staying with a winery requires a deep love of a slow craft.
A Little to the Left of Disobedient: Having to deal with a bully was just the motivation I needed to create a source of income that would bring joy, laughter, and success to me.