What does it mean to 'live well'?

picnic with friends
Public Domain MaxPixel -- Social eating is one of the most important contributors to wellbeing.

The UK's Living Well Index identities four key factors that indicate satisfaction with one's life.

Everyone has their own idea of what it means to live well, but last year a group of social scientists in the UK set out to determine which behaviors and activities are most commonly indicative of a life well-lived. The resulting Living Well Index was revised and published this month for 2018, and it outlines four key factors.

The list is interesting because it deviates from the usual 'shelter, food, employment' list that you might expect to read. It goes beyond survival, digging deeper into the things that actually make us humans feel content with our lives.

1. Sleep quality

The evidence for sleep is starting to roll in, or rather, it's being taken more seriously than it has been for the past several decades. From the report: "The quality of a person's sleep still has the strongest association with wellbeing." Those people who felt rested after sleep "all the time" had a wellbeing score that was 0.93 points higher (all else equal) on a 0-10 scale. Conversely, those who "never" felt rested after sleep reported a wellbeing score 0.51 points lower, controlling for other factors. Sounds like you should prioritize getting to bed on time and not punish yourself for needing a mid-afternoon nap!

2. Sex life satisfaction

The second most important factor for living well is the quality of one's sex life. The researchers found that people in the Young Family category (with children between 0 and 5) had "well-above-average levels of sex life satisfaction." Baby Boomers, by contrast, revealed less satisfaction with their sex lives – "a factor that is strongly negatively associated with age."

3. A sense of having enough time

The third most influential factor in people's perception of wellbeing is feeling like there's sufficient time to accomplish all that needs to happen:

"Those who strongly agreed they had ‘enough time to do everything’ were 8.1 points better off than those who strongly disagreed with this, all else equal... The extent to which people feel that they have enough time to do everything is heavily correlated with age. Three-quarters of the over-65s agreed that they had ‘enough time to do everything’ – a share that dropped to 55 per cent for those aged 55-64, and just 38 per cent for younger adults."

This proves that running around like a maniac, trying to squeeze it all in, isn't good for us; however, if you inhabit the Young Family stage, like I do, it is difficult to imagine anything else.

4. Social eating

Finally, we are better off eating with others, and the more often we do it, the happier and more satisfied we are with our lives. The researchers found that "someone who ‘never’ sits down to eat alone had a living well score 7.9 points higher than someone reporting that they ‘always’ ate their sit-down meals alone."

It's not entirely clear why this makes such a difference to humans, but one professor of psychology, Robin Dunbar, who worked on the Living Well Index, links it to a primal human instinct for companionship:

"The kinds of things that you do around the table with other people are very good at triggering the endorphin system, which is part of the brain’s pain-management system. Endorphins are opioids, they are chemically related to morphine – they are produced by the brain and give you an opiate high. That’s what you get when you do all this social stuff, including patting, cuddling and stroking. It is central to the way primates in general bond in their social groups and relationships.”

After mulling over these four factors, I think they can be summed up in a single phrase: "Slow down!" As soon as humans are able to embrace a slower speed of life, all of these factors fall into place. There's time to sleep, to enjoy great sex, to share a meal with friends, and not do any of it in a mad rush. We could all benefit from allowing the Living Well Index to shape our decisions about how to be.

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