The Good Life
“Imagine you’re on a train. Strangers are seated all around you. You’d like to have the most pleasant possible train ride, and you have a choice: talk to a stranger or keep to yourself. Which do you choose?”
This question comes from the book, The Good Life: Lessons from the World’s Longest Scientific Study of Happiness. The book is a consolidation of findings from the Harvard Study of Adult Development that began in 1938 and is still going on to this day. The study followed two groups of men, 268 sophomores enrolled in Harvard College, and 456 boys from some of Boston’s worst inner-city neighborhoods—the highs and lows. These two groups agreed to be regularly interviewed, to hand over medical records, and to answer annual in-depth surveys, for the rest of their life, and now, most of the participants are children or grandchildren of these two original groups. It now bears the impressive title of the longest in-depth longitudinal study of human life ever done. The purpose of the study? To discover what it is that makes people happy, what makes them thrive, what makes “the good life.”
While the study is vast, the answer to the question, “What is the good life?” is fairly simple: Good relationships. “In fact, good relationships are significant enough that if we had to take all eighty-four years of the Harvard Study and boil it down to a single principle for living, one life investment that is supported by similar findings across a wide variety of other studies, it would be this: Good relationships keep us healthier and happier. Period,” (The Good Life, p. 10). Later, they put it more starkly: “Positive relationships are essential to human well-being,” (p. 29).
As the study followed the two groups of boys, both at the opposite ends of the spectrum of opportunity, wealth, and status in society, they found that overall life satisfaction rose or fell upon the health of the individual’s relationships in his life. So, the poor inner-city kid who grew up to be a plumber with a big family and a meaningful network of friends was exponentially happier than the Harvard grad who became a high-powered lawyer, but remained socially isolated. Money, status, and education simply don’t matter if you are alone. And we are maybe more alone now than we ever have been.
In 2018, 1 in 5 Americans said that they “always or often feel lonely or socially isolated.” And that was in 2018, before the pandemic. Today, 15% of young men say that they don’t have one close friend, compared with only 3% back in 1990. Young people, on average, are lonelier than the elderly. A Harvard study conducted in 2021 to examine the effect of the pandemic found that a staggering 61% of young people, age 18-25, and 51% of mothers of young children report feeling lonely “almost all the time or all the time.” Add on top of this the heartbreaking reality that 63% of young people report suffering from “significant symptoms of anxiety and depression.”
And there are serious health costs to this kind of loneliness. It is still difficult to demonstrate what exactly is the link between loneliness and our health, but there is a serious cost to isolation. In a 2010 study of 300,000 participants from countries all over the world, researchers found that those who were more socially connected had less risk of dying at any age. In fact, “social connection increased the likelihood of surviving in any given year by more than 50 percent…These are very large associations, comparable to the effect of smoking on getting cancer,” (The Good Life, p. 47). The consequences of this are so high and so costly that the United Kingdom and Japan, now have official Ministers of Loneliness.
Sociologists and psychologists have come up with different theories about what it is that has caused this cratering of social relationships (see the work of Robert Putnam, Bowling Alone; Richard Reeves, Of Boys and Men; Sherry Turkle, Alone Together; and Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind and The Coddling of the American Mind). It’s some mixture of the rise of technology, smart phones, life online, heightened mobility, growing emphasis on careers and “workism”, hyper-fixated parenting, and the neglect of smaller voluntary associations (churches, bowling leagues, rotary associations, etc.). Whatever the cause is, it has put us in a painful vicious cycle. Social skills are like muscles. If you do not use them they atrophy. You forget how to start up a conversation, where to pick up with that old friend you haven’t caught up with in awhile. And so, you become more isolated, and so your social muscles became even weaker and harder to use. Which brings us back to our train question at the beginning.
I’m assuming the majority of us would elect to keep to ourselves and avoid small talk. Talking with strangers can be uncomfortable and we tend to assume that having some time to ourselves, scrolling on our phone or trying to get some work done would be more enjoyable.
Researchers at the University of Chicago actually tested this imagined scenario out. “They asked commuters to predict which of two scenarios—talking to a stranger or minding your own business—would make for a more positive experience. Then they instructed one group to intentionally connect with a nearby stranger and the other group to remain disconnected. When the ride was over, they asked the commuters how they felt about the train ride.
Before the ride, people overwhelmingly predicted that talking to someone they didn’t know would be a bad experience, and that keeping to themselves would be much better…The actual experience, however, was the opposite of what they expected. When commuters were told to strike up a conversation, most had a positive experience and rated their commute as better than usual, and those who typically worked on the train reported that the trip was no less productive when they talked to a stranger,” (The Good Life, p.36).
The study is a simple illustration of our need for connection, and our reluctance to do so. So, what do we do?
Perhaps we might be helped by considering the basis for our need to connect. If we can discern where these powerful desires come from, they might help us understand how to use them more wisely.
An Evolutionary Basis for Community
Yuval Noah Harrari, a popular historian, argues: “Seventy-thousand years ago, our ancestors were insignificant animals…Their impact on the world was not much greater than jellyfish or fireflies or woodpeckers. Today, in contrast, we control this planet. And the question is: How did we come from there to here?... I want to believe that there is something special about me…that makes me superior to a dog or a pig, or a chimpanzee. But the truth is that, on the individual level, I’m embarrassingly similar to a chimpanzee…The real difference between humans and all other animals is not on the individual level; it’s on the collective level. Humans control the planet because they are the only animals that can cooperate.”
In the introduction to their book, the authors of The Good Life explain that our innate need for social relationships come from an evolutionary process of survival value. Only the animals who survived got to pass on their genes, so the biological markers that shape who we are must obviously possess some survival value. If we work together, we live.
So we must cooperate, we must be social. The social outsider, the loner living in the pre-historic age wasn't just socially deprived, they were in serious jeopardy. “50,000 years ago, being alone was dangerous. If [a homo sapien] was left…by herself, her body and brain would have gone into temporary survival mode. The need to recognize threats would have fallen on her alone, and her stress hormones would have increased and made her more alert…her sleep would have been shallower; if a predator was approaching, she would want to know, so she would have been more easily aroused,” (The Good Life, p. 94). This instills in us what is sometimes referred to as the “herd instinct.”
But this works its way out into our most basic relational impulses: “That little ping of joy you get when a baby laughs at your silly expression is biologically linked to the one your distant ancestors got when they made a baby laugh in the year 100,000 BC,” (The Good Life, p. 28).
There are at least two problems that come from this story of where our desire for community comes from: (1) Tribalism and (2) Exploitation and Disappointment
If our basis for community fundamentally and essentially comes from a materialistic, evolutionary perspective, then that means that our tendency towards any species of tribalism is strengthened. Jonathan Haidt, the social psychologist, explains in his book, The Righteous Mind, that evolution hardwires us to be tribal and that while we can try to fight against its worst expressions, it is inevitable. And it leads us to not only associate with other people similar to us, but it also leads us to become deeply suspicious of people different from us—we begin to tell ourselves stories about us and them. And so it “binds and blinds”—binding us together and blinding us from the perspective of others.
Your “tribe” may be based on interest, religion, race, politics—whatever. But if our impulse for community is oriented towards survival fundamentally, then that means that it isn’t necessarily oriented towards truth or what is moral. So one person may build their "tribe" on the brotherhood of man, and another may build their tribe on their race's inherit superiorty. We are attracted to the first and blanch at the second. The Klu Klux Klan may have a thriving community that unites them together, but it is something we would say is wrong. We tend to strongly believe that xenophobia (lit. “fear of outsiders”) is counter-productive to a healthy society and that we should be an inclusive and diverse society, yet there is no evolutionary basis for this claim. In fact, the evolutionary argument seems to work in the opposite direction and incentivizes me finding other people similar to me, who agree with me, who look like me, and then viewing outsiders with suspicion.
Evolution is inherently violent, it is the crushing and extinguishing of the weak. There is no guiding hand or principle, quite literally, might makes right. Evolution has no moral rule book, it only filters strong over weak. So if my tribe crushes yours, I am not transgressing any law or principle, I am simply doing what our ancestors have done to survive.
But, we intuitively recoil at that, despite it operating precisely in line with how tribalism has worked in the evolutionary process for eons.
Exploitation and Disappointment
When we think about what we are looking for in a relationship, what do we want? We want someone who enjoys us for our own sake. If I find out that someone else has ulterior motives in pursuing a relationship with me, I feel exploited, taken advantage of. Yet, the entire argument of secular materialism is that the reason we gravitate towards social relationships is survival value. The reason we find our children delightful, our spouses beautiful, our friendships meaningful is because they are another part of the mechanistic, impersonal process of evolution filtering out the weak.
Yet, that cuts against the grain of our intuitive experience. When we hear our baby giggle, we want to believe that there is something more there than just survival value; when we look at our families and friends we want to believe that they are more important to us than just their utility, but that they matter in of themselves, full stop. In our best relationships, we find ourselves wanting to reach for almost metaphysical language: sacred, magic, awe-inspiring. And, a skeptic could say, “Sure we may want that, but that doesn’t make it true, and that wanting is itself probably something evolution has given us.” Granted—but my point is that if that is true, then that means that to really enjoy relationships, community, you can’t think too much about it, or it totally evacuates the relationship of its seemingly super-natural aspect. C.S. Lewis explains the cost of this evolutionary materialism:
“You can’t except in the lowest animal sense, be in love with a girl if you know (and keep on remembering) that all the beauties both of her person and of her character are a momentary and accidental pattern produced by the collision of atoms, and that your own response to them is only a sort of psychic phosphorescence arising from the behaviour of your genes…You may still, in the lowest sense, have a “good time”; but just in so far as it becomes very good, just in so far as it ever threatens to push you on from cold sensuality into real warmth and enthusiasm and joy, so afar you will be forced to feel the hopeless disharmony between your own emotions and the universe in which you really live,” (C.S. Lewis, Present Concerns).
What Christianity Offers
What does Christianity say our desire for community comes from?
The Christian faith teaches that God Himself exists in a community of three persons in one God: the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Bible teaches that “God is love” (1 John 4:8), so this community is fundamentally a community of love—the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit perfectly loving and delighting in one another for each other’s sake. This is plumb line of all reality: loving relationship. Fundamental, ultimate reality is found in love not violence. When we see some grisly injustice, we are not witnessing the world "as it really is," but what it fundamentally is not. God's eternal communion of love is the foundation of all reality.
And out of this loving fullness, God creates everything.
Human beings are, in the Biblical story, made in the “image of God,” so we are inherently communal, like our God. We are made to commune with Him, be in a relationship with God, and be in a relationship with one another. This is why the one place in the creation story that we are told something is “not good” is when Adam is alone (Gen 2:18). There is a reason why loneliness is so costly—it cuts against our very design.
Sin leads to estrangement and alienation. Adam and Eve hide from one another and from God after their sin, before blaming one another. Cain, their son, kills Abel, their other son, out of envy. Violence and tribalism is not inherent to human beings, but is a perversion of the curse that must be overcome. It may feel like tribalism in all its stripes: sexism, racism, classism, etc., is natural to mankind, but the Bible says that it is actually something wrong that must be repaired in us.
And that is what Jesus Christ comes to do. God is so concerned about being in relationship with us that He takes on flesh, comes down to this earth to continue to pursue relationship. And what does He do when He is here? He pursues relationships, He relates to people, and He cares especially for the least of these, even when they take from Him and don’t follow Him. But He also explains that He has come to deal with the hostility that separates us from one another and from God: our sin. And He deals with this decisively through His death on the cross, where we are told in the Bible that he puts an end to the hostility between us and heaven, and us and one another (Eph 2).
But, most amazing of all, He teaches that this opportunity to be made right with God and one another is freely given away to any who will accept it, whether you are white or black, rich or poor, man or woman and then puts them into a permanent community: the Church. This means that Christianity offers us three radical benefits in regards to our desire for relationship and community:
A Welcoming Community
The Bible teaches that while faith in Jesus may be personal, it is by no means private. Faith in Jesus leads to being folded into Jesus' Body, the Church. The Church is called the “family of God” in the Bible, a strange family that is comprised not merely of people who are the same, but who may differ across lines of ethnicity, nationality, politics, status, wealth, education, gender, interests, etc. And because we all have equally admitted that we all are sinners in need of mercy and all are only here by God’s sheer grace, then there is no superiority, no division, no tribalism. This is also why Christianity is the only truly worldwide religion: 36% in N. and S. America, 25 % in Europe, 23 % in Africa, and 13 % in Asia (2010 Pew Research).
Why is the church not just another tribe like any other? Because every other tribe requires a "badge of ability" that earns you access. It could be your skin color, your language, your education, your sex, your competence, your politics, etc. And if you lack the badge, you are not welcome. That leads to a sense of superiority to outsiders. But in Christianity, Jesus earns our "badge of ability" on our behalf, so any one is able to be brought in, so there is no sense of smugness, superiority, or posturing. We all came in as equal sinners and we all remain here as equal dependents on mercy.
A Concern for Outsiders
Jesus' most famous parable, the Good Samaritan, is a story of what Jesus' idea of "love of neighbor" looks like. In the story, the hero--the Samaritan--is someone from a different religion than the Jews of Jesus' original audience. The point of the story is that God's idea of love of neighbor isn't limited to those who share your faith, but should be extended to any and all.
One of the problems of tribalism is that it lends itself to xenophobia--that is a compound of Greek words: xeno comes from the word for "stranger" and phobia comes from the word for "fear." All Christians are commanded to practice hospitality (Heb 13:2), which is the exact inverse of xenophobia: philoxenia, love (philo) of strangers (xenia).
A Basis for Relationships for their Own Sake
Because we are all made in the image of God, Harrari is wrong. You are essentially different than an animal. Further, your value is not dependent on what you offer me. Simply by being another human being who bears God's image, you have inherent dignity and therefore a relationship can be pursued with you for your own sake. I'm sure that many people, likely Harrari himself, doesn't have a mere utlititarian perspective in their relationships. I'm sure scores of subscribers to a materialistic worldview have many relationships that they find to be inherently good in of themselves regardless of what benefit they add to them. But my point is that they do so in spite of their worldview, and, by unconsciously borrowing seriously from Christianity's or other religious perspectives. Their worldview, consistently followed, would lead to frightening place, particularly for the individuals in our society who don't seem to contribute much to the wider society, and would be an easy tool of oppresion against the weakest.
The uniqueness of Christiantiy provides a basis for loving people when it doesn't add any benefit to your life, even when it costs you. This is what Jesus did for us.
My song is love unknown
My Savior's love for me
Love to the loveless shown
That they might lovely be
Jesus did not love us because we were lovely, but loved us to make us lovely. And He sacrificed everything for unlovely people like us. Now, as recipients of that abundant love, we can turn and do likewise to others.