What it takes to live a good life

From Our Changing World, 9:07 pm on 10 December 2020

The secrets to a good life are as simple as a strong intimate relationship and plenty of rest, says Victoria University of Wellington psychologist Joseph Bulbulia.

couple at sunset

Photo: Alex Ilby / Unsplash

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More than 40,000 New Zealanders take part in the New Zealand Attitudes and Values Study. They regularly answer hundreds of carefully thought-out questions, posed by a team of researchers who are interested in a wide range of topics.

Joseph Bulbulia.

Joseph Bulbulia. Photo: Victoria University of Wellington

Joseph studies people and their lives outside work, with a focus on New Zealand society.

“I’m interested in what makes life good,” says Joseph. “What are the things that lead people to have a rewarding, satisfying, meaningful life.”

“Some of the surprising outcomes in the study have been, for me, the role of relationships,” says Joseph. “Much more so than making lots of money, or gaining promotion, or having a child.”

“We find people who are in relationships tend to report much greater satisfaction, much lower anxiety and distress.”

Joseph is quick to acknowledge that negative relationships can also be anxiety-provoking and distressing, but says that on average “it’s those personal relationships, in particular romantic ones, that tend to make people - on average - happier across society.”

“And the magnitude of the effect is massive.”

Silver lining to the lockdown

Joseph says he is also interested in the role that relaxation and “ease of effort” contribute to a sense of living a good life.

This came out of research carried out during New Zealand’s covid lockdown in early 2020.

He says the majority of people surveyed were not as challenged by the situation as the researchers had expected.

Many people reported “a sense of relief from the daily grind,” commenting that they were getting more sleep.

“Turning down the volume of the ordinary routine helped us to feel relief and then to cope with the extraordinary challenges,” says Joseph.

“We see the coming together of rest, relaxation and relationship in that first lockdown.”

“The distress that we do detect in the population at that time was happening in that subset of the population that was experiencing relationship challenges.”

Further listening

Biggest risk to ageing well is loneliness – listen to Yoram Borak talking about the power of social relationships in helping us age well.