Book Review: The Good Life

8 min read

Every week, it seems like there is a new book published on how we can do better. “Stolen focus” by Johann Hari says that the solution is to get rid of distractions. “Atomic Habits” by James Clear lays out concrete methods for how we can accomplish the things we set out to achieve. “How Not to Give a F*ck” by Mark Manson offers relief by positing that none of this matters anyway in the face of death, and so the solution is to stop caring altogether. These books are all popular, enjoyable, and offer valuable insight, however I was looking for something more fundamental and grounded in science. As someone who is approaching a life milestone and exiting graduate school, I wanted to see if the lessons of others could teach me anything about what I should plan to do next.

“The Good Life” [@waldinger_good_2023] seemed to fit the bill perfectly. Based on the The Harvard Study of Adult Development, the book promises to answer the key to life’s most burning question; “How do I do this right?”. The authors aren’t shy about revealing the answer, and in fact do so at the very beginning of the book. The number one most important thing for a fulfilling life is meaningful relationships, whether that be with friends, family or romantic partners.

So then, what is left to discover? It would seem as if just reading the sample would save the reader quite a bit of money, and they could move on with their day. I thought the same thing for a brief moment, but then decided to take the plunge, and don’t regret doing so one bit.

Caring about all the wrong things

In addition to re-enforcing the main point (in the direct words of the authors good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period.) the first chapter dissects just how off-base many of us are. Millennials largely report that becoming rich is their number one goal, with fame closely trailing behind. Even on a surface level, this presents a problem. “Rich” is a relative term, so we cannot all be rich. Similarly, if all of us are famous, how will we all have time to pay attention to each other? The authors point out that a lot of the metrics that people report for leading a good life directly deal with comparisons, which have been exacerbated by social media.

There are also some needed distinctions made between temporary happiness (such as winning the lottery) and lifelong fulfillment, which is heavily emphasized throughout the book. Two terms which are introduced were new to me, eudaimonia which indicates a state of deep well-being, and hedonia, which refers to a state of pleasure or enjoyment (and the root word in which hedonism is based).

Lastly, the topic of loneliness is sobering, and it is likely to be not only understood by the reader but felt. We all know the feeling in which we become so entrapped by our own lives that we lose track of time and forget that we haven’t connected with a friend in ages, or missed one too many phone calls from our family. As loneliness has direct implications for our health, even those who are focused on their careers should be aware of the importance of maintaining relationships.

Other people can be nice, really

Now that the primary problem (loneliness) and solution (meaningful relationships) have been laid out, the reasoning behind each are further addressed. Particularly interesting was the discussion around “affective forecasting”, which is argued to be at least partly to blame for our unwillingness to interact with each other. When we see a stranger, we think about how awkward we would feel if they turned out to be boring, weird, or rude, instead of recognizing that they are likely quite pleasant to talk to. This can be linked to “loss aversion” as presented by Kahneman and Tversky; we dismiss the upside while focusing most of our attention on what could go wrong. Herein lies one of the first action items of the book, which is to “be more curious about other people”. By recognizing that we are bias towards the negative, we can make a conscious effort to be more open to others.

It’s only uphill from here

This chapter drew a lot of reflection, as it walks the reader through various life stages, and has us reflect on previous versions of ourselves, and what ambitions, goals, and values we had at the time. These change over our life course, but often in our day to day life. With changing economic and social factors, the exact time periods of these life stages is changing. Mid-to-late twenties are now considered a period of “emerging adulthood”, where we are still figuring out who we are and what our identity is. As we move throughout this stage, possibilities begin to shrink as our path is solidified. We pick a place to live, friends to spend time with, and a career to pursue.

As we age out of the mid-life stage we gain knowledge as to the importance of events, and what we should and should not worry about. The amount of time we have left directly impacts what we deem to be valuable, and research shows that we are actually happiest in our old age. We have a better sense of what is important, and are able to spend more time with those we care about. Algorithms to Live By by Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths also discusses this as the “explore-exploit” tradeoff. In younger years we wish to explore the world to find out the things that we like, and then at later stages we sit back and enjoy.

There is no such thing as a free lunch

Maintaining relationships can be difficult; time and energy are required to keep them going. The New York Times has an interesting article that debates if using corporate tools (like an excel sheet) to manage relationship is a good idea. Both the authors of the New York Times article and the authors of the book touch on spontaneity, and how attention is a limited resource that we choose how to distribute. By allocating time, on a regular basis, we are conveying to others that we place value on their presence.

One of my favourite components of this section was the comparison between how much time we spend on individualistic activities (such as watching television or social media usage) to the time that we spend in the presence of others. If we meet a friend for coffee once a month, this represents a few hours of our time, when each day the average person spends many more hours consuming media through screens.


The hours spent on social media are staggering, and yet are a staple of our daily lives. Connection through social media is not a replacement for in person connection, even though it can often feel as such.

Positive relationships come in all shapes and sizes

The last three chapters of the book go over romantic relationships, friendships, and work relationships. Each come with their own set of challenges and opportunities. Out of the three, I feel as if work relationships are often the most overlooked, and I was therefore taken aback upon reading the following quote:

By the time the average worker in the UK reaches 80 years of age, he or she will have spent about 8,800 hours socializing with friends, about 9,500 hours in activities with an intimate partner, and more than 112,000 hours (13 years!) at work

This is a long time to spend in an environment in which we do not have relationships in which we feel a strong sense of connection. As the work landscape changes, and more isolated jobs become mainstream, this may become an even bigger issue. People perform better at work when they have a close friend, and so it is in an employer’s best interest to facilitate these relationships.

The bottom line

It’s never too late to engage in more meaningful relationships with those around us. The Good Life points to many little ways in which we can work to make a more fulfilling life a reality. Care about relationships, realize that time is our greatest resource to dedicate towards them, and be open to the experiences and emotions of others. At the end of it all (according to some of the best evidence available), we will wish that we spent more time with those that we cared about.