How Do We Measure a Good Life?

How do we measure a good life? Do we judge it by the quality of an individual’s relationships and sense of meaning and purpose? Or, do we judge it according to an individual’s wealth, status and power? These external measures of success seem to count for a lot and yet, they clearly don’t buy happiness. Park Avenue psychiatrists and their patients know this all too well. Complaints about burnout, loneliness, meaninglessness and broken relationships are often at the core of their unhappiness. They spend so much time ticking boxes that they lose sight of what really matters. In the name of “success,” they often sacrifice their mental and physical health.

If tangible achievements don’t amount to happiness, then what does? As a psychiatrist, I often found myself meeting with patients who wanted to explore this question. Most of my training and work had been focused on symptom management and what was wrong with patients. I didn’t feel like I had the tools to address the big questions about what really matters. As I began exploring the meaning of “the good life” a few years ago, I learned about the field of Positive Psychology.

In broad terms, Positive Psychology focuses on human strengths and well-being. Essentially, it is the scientific study of what makes life worth living versus traditional psychiatry and psychology that studies mental illness and pathology. Instead of focusing on what’s wrong, Positive Psychology focuses on what’s right. Along these lines, Positive Psychology is interested in a different kind of success: Success with a capital “S” that focuses on well-being.

One of the key takeaways from Positive Psychology is that relationships with other people matter most. In fact, a Harvard study that followed 268 sophomores from the late 1930s and early 1940s over the course of their adult lives showed that the single most important predictor of successful aging, defined by physical and mental health and satisfaction with life at age 75, wasn’t cholesterol level, treadmill endurance or intelligence. It was having close relationships. Based on the extensive data collected over seven decades, the author concluded: “The only things that matter in life are your relations to other people.”

However, contrary to what many believe, this doesn’t mean sacrificing your own well-being. In fact, personal well-being is essential to cultivating quality relationships with others. In the same way that we tend to over-emphasize the importance of power and money when thinking about success, we also over-inflate the value of self-sacrifice. It’s so tempting to buy into the myth that there is something noble about putting our own needs last, and women are especially vulnerable to this.

We prioritize our kids, our spouses, our causes and our job long before we give any thought to ourselves. We neglect our own well-being and feel guilty about taking care of our own needs in those rare moments that we do. Rather than waiting for the “right time” like a vacation or weekend, it’s important to integrate micro-moments of well-being into our lives on a daily basis.

According to Nobel Prize-winning scientist Daniel Kahneman, we experience approximately 20,000 moments each day. Making the most of each moment is a choice. By choosing to prioritize moments and experiences that enhance well-being, we can lead Successful lives with a capital “S.”