By Prof Alvin Ng Lai Oon
The concept of a “Good Life” is not new. It has been discussed and studied since ancient times, with philosophers and religious figures prescribing all sorts of spiritual and scientific approaches in the pursuit of happiness – to live the good life.
Other than spiritual practices, many recommend a balanced life, while systematically studying who we are in relation to each other, and to the rest of the world. These inquiries led to various social developments and scientific discoveries, and eventually the birth of psychology as a scientific discipline in the late 1800s, combining mainly findings from physiology, evolution, and philosophy.
Unsurprisingly, psychology is usually associated with well-being, although more accurately, it is a scientific study of mind, brain and behaviour in all aspects of life. Nevertheless, psychology aims to answer age old questions from ancient philosophies such as “what’s the nature of human nature?” and “can knowing human nature help us have a good life?” by applying scientific methods.
As a psychologist, I often get asked to give talks on psychology applied to well-being. A frequently asked question in my talks on mental health is, “Doctor, can you teach us how to live without stress?”
“I’m afraid not, but I can talk about stress management”
“Isn’t that the same thing?”
“Not at all. Stress is always going to be there. It’s how you manage it that helps you get through life. Stress is natural and adaptive, and is not all that bad. You’d die pretty quickly if you had no stress whatsoever.”
Many people expect a ‘Good Life’ to mean a stress-free life. Too often, stress is associated with negativity, disorder and aversion. Poor old stress, having to live through such prejudice!
Stress can be good or bad – depending on how it is managed. Stress is like fire – it can destroy, but it can also build and give energy – depending on how you manage it. So, let’s be kind to stress. Let’s learn more about it so we can be familiar with it. The more familiar with are with stress, the easier it is to notice it and to do something about it. Psychology can teach us a lot of about our emotions and how to manage them. Let’s investigate, rather than deviate.
Speaking of investigation, there have been tonnes of research carried out on quality of life and the factors that contribute to it. One very significant factor is having good relationships. Longitudinal scientific research has consistently found that meaningful friendships are very highly correlated with quality of life – higher than health, wealth, job satisfaction, or personal achievements. Social health is a significant protective factor against perceived isolation, depression and suicide.
So how to have a good life? Have good friends and to stay connected with them. Keep on making friends as you’ll lose some along the way (and that’s ok – it happens). Having friends around you helps provide a sense of security and safety. A community of friends is a safe and comfortable community. Community well-being contributes significantly to our individual well-being. Having family and friends around makes it easier for us to reach out when we need help.
If we look into ancient writings, we can find very similar advice from philosophers and religious personalities on the ‘Good Life’. Community is not merely part of spiritual life, but all of spiritual life. Ancient wisdom encourages living as part of a system, understanding how each of us affect each other. This is where moral and ethical guidelines come from. It is no wonder that contemporary social science researches are finding evidence for such wisdom.
So, the moral of the story is: for a good life, make friends. Teach your children and other young ones how to make friends. It’s much more important that their grades at school. Friends can give you much more satisfaction than grades can. In fact, friends can even help you get the grades by helping you by being your study partner and supporting your learning. Friendship requires no grades anyway (if they do, they’re not worth the friendship).
“Surely there are other ways to have a good life according to psychological findings – why focus on having quality friends?”.
Because data tells us social health trumps all other factors in predicting a good life. Plus making friends is a universal skill that we already have. It’s nothing fancy, and more importantly – free of charge!
We also know from research that those who are isolated, with little or no sense of belonging, and feel like a burden to society due to perceived rejection – are more likely to feel helpless and hopeless to the point of depression and even suicide. What’s the opposite of this? Actual sense of belonging and relevance to society!
So, be kind, be a friend, connect with friends. Life is much better that way. Especially in this pandemic. Stay home to stay safe, but stay connected to stay sane.
Professor Alvin Ng Lai Oon is trained as a clinical psychologist but is now a full-time academic at Sunway University, where he is Associate Dean (Engagement and Internationalisation) at the School of Medical and Life Sciences.