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Coaching for life: Clues about life satisfaction

By Michael Ceo



My 16-year-old son, Peter, has designed a behavioral science research project that touches on a profound question: "What makes people happy in life?"


He invited people over 60 to comment in a questionnaire on the degree to which they are satisfied with their lives. The questionnaire evaluates life satisfaction in relation to a variety of factors, including wealth, health, history of addictions, marriage and career, and prayer.


The results have been profound in their simplicity. Curiously, what people said about their life satisfaction runs counter to the messages about happiness that constantly bombard us.


It is important to point out that this was not a scientific research project that cuts across socioeconomic lines. Nor is the study a statistically designed random sample of senior America. Rather, it is a tiny slice of how older people see their lives.


Conclusions from the data clearly suggest that a strong marriage is the major contributor to life satisfaction. More than wealth, travel or career, it is our intimate relationships that make life meaningful. When asked what they would have changed in life, many respondents said that they wished they could have met their spouses earlier in life.


Surprisingly, wealth was low on the list of factors contributing to life satisfaction for seniors. A number of people who rated their wealth as low, rated their life satisfaction as high if their marriage was good.


What these results may be telling us is that much of the running around in our lives is going in the wrong direction. Could it be that our pursuit of newer vehicles and larger homes really doesn't lead to happiness? If our activities don't match what we really want out of life, we are headed for an unsatisfactory old age.


These findings also point to how we ought to focus our resources. It perplexes me that our educational curriculum does not include more courses to help people learn skills in conflict resolution, problem solving, communications and parenting.


So, were the Beatles right in that "love is all you need?" Not quite, because health was another factor that weighed in heavily on life satisfaction. Respondents with high life satisfaction scores also rated their health at the maximum level.


These results correspond to an informal study I did while working as a consultant to teams of hospice nurses and social workers in Northern Virginia.


Time and time again I heard that dying people did not regret that they didn't spend more time at the office or watching television. Nor did they complain about their earning level or their finances. What people talked about most before death were their relationships -- with spouses, children and friends.


While a pre-med student, one of my heroes was psychiatrist, author and Holocaust survivor, Victor Frankel. In his landmark book, "Man's Search for Meaning," he struggles with what led people to survive the horrors of the concentration camps and what made people perish. He came to the realization that people who had strong relationships survived the psychological damage -- even if the people with whom they had these relationships had died.


In my son's project, the other factor that emerged as crucial for life satisfaction was the presence of prayer in people's lives. It was almost unanimous that people with high life satisfaction ratings were people who looked to prayer to make sense of life's struggles and joys.


Perhaps the most transforming of all relationships is that with our higher power. To feel cared for in this way is a sure path to satisfaction in life.