Today (at the time of this writing) is my grandfather’s 92nd birthday. He has been on this planet for nearly a century. As I was working on his birthday card and looking through old photos, I was struck by how many of my life events he has witnessed, whether he was there to teach, encourage, support, comfort, or even just to make me laugh. Grandpa used to read to me, play outside, go on road trips, took me to take my driver’s test, attended concerts, graduations, martial arts events, my wedding, the death of one of my children, the births of two others, countless birthday parties for myself and my children, funerals, family holidays, helping with house projects…the list could go on and on. If he couldn’t be there in person, he and my grandmother would call or send a card. I have countless cards and some voice messages saved of them marking special events in my life.

At 47 years of age, I have had far fewer life experiences than he has. Some of the events mentioned above were major life changes, whether happy or devastating. Many memories that popped up for me, however, were very small moments in time, probably insignificant to an outsider. But it has me thinking about what makes up a life. Certainly, life-altering events like marriages, a new home, births, deaths, and even some vacations will live on long in our memories and have a significant impact on our lives. However, they do not make a life.

How will we spend our time on this planet? Will we move through our days on auto-pilot, completing our tasks and little else beyond that? Or will we grow and choose to connect with others and our environment? A life is made by our daily choices. Choosing time playing or talking with others instead of looking at a screen. Deciding to connect with the natural world through a garden or a hike instead of relying on the supermarket or the treadmill. Developing one’s mind through reading, studying, or trying something new instead of watching television. Learning who we are every day by the choices we make as we move through life. We’ll never reach perfection with this, and technology and solitude have their places, but what will we choose most often?

A life is made in smaller moments. Late-night feedings where you become your infant’s whole world for a few moments. Breakfast while laughing over the day’s comics. Holding hands while walking through the woods or down the street. Catching a loved one’s eye over a shared joke. Quiet conversation late into the night. Meaningful and rewarding work. Most of these moments do not happen in isolation, but require others to be present, and so I would argue that how we build a life is, most importantly, through the relationships we build with others.

Recent longitudinal studies have shown that one of the single most important influences on mental, emotional, and physical health, as well as longevity, is the strength of meaningful relationships. The American Psychological Association estimates that strong social relationships increase the likelihood of survival by fifty percent! As I look at my grandfather’s long life and see the beauty contained within it, and as I see how many people have come to celebrate the day he came into this world, I know that he has made a real life–a life full of love, meaning, camaraderie, and deep connection.