The question of what it means to live "the good life" has fascinated and compelled people throughout history.
Their answers have been as varied as the philosophies and ideologies that they developed (think Confucianism, communism, or consumerism), though there’s an increasing body of scientific research weighing in on this question. The Harvard Longitudinal Study, an in-depth study into what makes people happy and fulfilled across a lifetime, is the most famous of these. Its findings may be a surprise to conventional wisdom in the 21st century, but aspects of it are curiously resonant with features of the 2000-year-old Easter story.
The longest study of happiness ever done
In 1938, the Harvard Longitudinal Study began. 724 men from disadvantaged families in Boston, as well as Harvard graduates, participated in the research. For over eight decades, the study has been tracking the same individuals and their families, asking thousands of questions and taking hundreds of measurements. Among the various goals of the study, one was to discover what makes for a good life; through studying, income, status, relationships, subjective well-being and physical health across the lifetime. The study (which is still ongoing, and now looking at succeeding generations), has yielded incredibly rich data sets, out of which there are some profound insights on happiness (check out this TED talk and this book). Some of these show unsurprising correlations, for example, the link between lifestyle and longevity. Though the most dominant finding, corroborated by similar studies, is that ‘the good life’ is chiefly realised through good relationships- and to a staggering degree.
Those with healthy marriages and close friendships were happier, lived longer, and were physically stronger than those without (their bodies actually repaired quicker from damage). This observation is somewhat counter-intuitive given cultural messages on what makes a good life – it turns out that we humans are particularly poor at knowing what will make us happy. Our culture very strongly encourages money and status (the two are often conflated) as routes to happiness- though this is not what the study revealed. Nor was happiness the preserve of those who avoided the difficulties of bereavement, illness and unemployment – but good relationships allowed people to cope with difficulty better.
George Valliant, the former director of the study, summarises it this way: “Happiness is love. Full stop.”
"Happiness is love. Full stop."
-The Easter Story-
So what’s this study got to do with the Easter story? A story of a God who became man, endured a horrific punishment he didn’t deserve, and comes back from the grave to show that death does not have the last word. It’s an incredibly rich and complex story with invitations to those features of relationships that the Harvard study suggests ‘the good life’ is predicated upon.
There’s a persistent misunderstanding that Christianity is about behaving well in order to earn a reward in the afterlife. A look at the central story of Christianity should disabuse anyone of this misconception. The central idea of Easter is that of grace, unmerited generosity; that humans are loved by God not because of what they have done, but in spite of it. Those who were happiest in the Harvard study were people who were intrinsically motivated in their lives; they weren’t looking to earn approval. Such a disposition is possible only when one is unconditionally loved, and such an offer of unconditional love sits at the heart of the Easter story.
If we refer to the above as the ‘vertical dimension’ of Easter as it concerns our relationship to God, the ‘horizontal dimension’, our relationships with one another, is similarly transformative. The crucifixion is remembered through a supper Jesus had with his friends, where he shared bread and wine as a memory of his body and his blood. This is customarily celebrated as a church, though a prerequisite is that any fallouts should be reconciled before taking part. The ritual is a reminder of reconciliation with God and fellow human beings; the two are, in some sense, inseparable. It’s an interesting detail of the resurrection narratives that the resurrected Jesus only seems to be recognised when he’s around a dinner table, where food and hospitality are being shared – a nod, perhaps, to the centrality of hospitality and fellowship.
The central message of the Easter story is one of reconciled relationships, both vertical and horizontal. The most important teaching Jesus gave his followers is to love God, and to love your neighbour (who may also be your enemy). The historical claims of Christianity, interesting though they are, aren’t the point here. It’s to point out the way that the Christian story seems to speak directly to the human condition, to our need to love and be loved – a need so well verified by the Harvard Longitudinal Study.
The writer G.K. Chesterton offered a charming reflection on the way that this Christian story made striking emotional sense to him. He wrote,
'If I found a key on the road and discovered it fit and opened a particular lock at my house, I would assume that the key was made by the lock maker.’
Drawing on this analogy, he suggests that the teaching of Jesus ‘so obviously fits the locks of so many human souls, in so many times and so many places…it is likely that they were designed by the Heart Maker.’
It’s interesting that this need for love and reconciliation in relationships, which is so clearly articulated in the Christian story, can also bask in the light of empirical research. Though stories, unlike empirical findings, have the knack of reaching hearts and transforming lives.