Lo♥︎ing Legal Life: The secret to a happy life

This week systemic coach Zita Tulyahikayo and barrister James Pereira QC discuss the results of a recent study on well-being and happiness and what we lessons we can take from it for our daily lives.

One of life’s eternal questions: what makes people happy? For the most part we all strive for happiness – or claim to – but very often our aims are short term, and frequently dictated by our perceptions of our current circumstances. Hence people are often heard to say “I’ll he happy when this case is over” or “I’ll be much happier if I make partner this year” or “If only I could take more time off work, I would be so much happier.”

Zita Tulyahikayo

Examining the present is of course a necessary part of assessing one’s wellbeing.

But what if we could look at circumstances across the span of a lifetime and learn about happiness from a lifetime’s experience? What if we could draw upon the lives of others to decide what to do now in order to be happy in the future?

A recently published study has done just that. The Harvard Study of Adult Development tracked the wellbeing of over 700 men, one group who were graduates of Harvard between 1939-1944, and another group who were growing up in the poorest areas and among the poorest families of Boston in 1939. Over that period, the subjects have answered regular surveys, had their blood taken, their medical records assessed, and even – in more recent years – their brains scanned. Parents, wives and children of the subjects were also interviewed. The group reflected all walks of life, from factory workers to a US President, and their stories involved triumphs and failures along the way. A good many of the men are still alive and still participating in the study to this day.

The study’s results are revealing. The key factor that determined people’s wellbeing was not status, money or fame; it was how satisfied they were with their relationships. According to Robert Waldinger, the current director of the study, good relationships make us happier and healthier.

Waldinger emphasizes three key lessons from the 75-year project. First, the more socially connected we are, the healthier, happier and longer we live. Feelings of isolation and loneliness have the opposite effect.

Secondly, it is not the quantity of our relationships but their quality that is important. Good relationships support us in times of stress, so that our well-being is maintained even in difficult times. On the other hand, bad relationships magnify the impact of stressful times.

James Pereira QC

Thirdly, good relationships with people who could be relied upon in difficult times were found to delay the ageing of the brain: those in good relationships tended to stay sharper for longer, whereas brain ageing occurred quicker in those with poor relationships.

What does this mean for our daily lives?

First, we need to lift our gaze up from our books and away from our screens and acknowledge the value of social connections and interactions, not as a counterweight to the daily grind but as a necessary and critical part of a healthy and happy life.

Secondly, we need to make space and time to strengthen and deepen our bonds with those who are close to us, and be mindful of the need to address and heal points of conflict in our relationships with others.

Thirdly, we need to make a commitment to our relationships with friends, family and community on an on-going basis, so that they stand on firm foundations that will support us as we move through life.

As Waldinger observed, “This message that good close relationships are good for our health and well being is as old as the hills. So why is it so hard to get and so easy to ignore?”

The answer, he suggests, is simple: “We’re human, what we’d really like is a quick fix. Relationships are messy and they’re complicated. The hard work is life long and never ends.”

Lawyers are notoriously good at long, hard and complicated work. So there really is no excuse, is there?

The authors welcome feedback from anyone concerned with the issues raised in their writing, and are also interested in hearing from anyone with suggestions for future articles. You can reach them at zita@lifetherapywithzita.com and on Twitter @LifeTherapyZita and at james.pereiraQC@ftbchambers.co.uk and on Twitter @JamesPereiraQC.

The full Loving Legal Life series can be found here.