What is the secret to a healthy and happy life? There is no shortage of self-help gurus offering solutions to hungry audiences, but it would be more helpful to have solid empirical evidence that cuts through the latest hype and trends.
In 1938, the Harvard Study of Adult Development embarked on a quest to discover what makes people thrive. Three generations and thousands of participants later, the unprecedented longitudinal study is still going strong. Participants don’t just fill out questionnaires. Their brains are scanned, blood is drawn, interviews are videotaped, family members are questioned, and more—their entire adult lives, these very human stories—observed and examined as they unfold.
We talked with Dr. Robert Waldinger, Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and the study’s fourth director, about the new book he co-authored with Mark Schultz, The Good Life: Lessons from the World’s Longest Scientific Study of Happiness. Waldinger’s TED Talk on the same topic is one of the top ten most watched, with over 43,960,000 views.
Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The study’s number one takeaway is that good relationships, from casual social interactions to life partnerships, make us happier, healthier and lead to living longer.
What are actionable takeaways for readers that they can do now, starting today, to create a happier life?
Waldinger: The first is to take stock of what you have in your life, what sources of support, and what you get from different relationships. And just think about what you’d like more of and then think about who you might develop that with. Maybe it’s more fun, maybe it’s more material help, like rides to the doctor or someone to loan you tools. Think about what you might like more of and then see if there are relationships you could nurture and strengthen – to add some of that to your life and provide that for other people too. Another thing is to take small steps. For instance, ask yourself, “Who do I miss? Who would I like to connect with?” And then send them a text right now, send them an email, call them on the phone just for a quick chat. Just do a tiny little outreach. And if you do one of those every day, that’s huge. That would make a big difference in your life.
Dawson: What if someone you want to connect with doesn’t want to connect with you?
Waldinger: Right, that’s a good point. Don’t expect everybody to come back positively. Some people might not respond, some people might not be interested. Think about it like basketball or baseball. You’re not going to make the basket or hit it every time. But more often than not, people are going to be delighted when you do that. I’ve done this when I give talks. I’ve said toward the end of the talk, “OK, everybody take out your phone.” I want you to think of somebody you miss that you want to connect with. Send them just a little text saying, “Hi. Just wanted to connect.” And then, during the question and answer, I ask did anybody get anything back? And people raise their hands, and they’ve got stories to tell: “We already made a date for dinner.” Or “My friend just had surgery, and he was so glad I reached out.” These are small actions that can have big ripple effects.
Dawson: What should readers know to best understand the groundbreaking nature of the study?
Waldinger: Sure. Two things. One is it was a study of human thriving. It was a study of what keeps people healthy and happy, as opposed to most research that focused on what goes wrong with people. It was groundbreaking in 1938 to study healthy development. And then the other thing that’s important is that it studies the same people year after year after year. Most research is comprised of snapshots. We’ll do a snapshot of a group of 40-year-olds or 60-year-olds today, and we’ll talk about life development and adulthood. But it’s very different to follow people across their entire lives. Thousands of people.
Dawson: So, it’s unlikely you’ll find this type of study replicated anywhere across the globe.
Waldinger: No, no. And it’ll probably never be done again. It’s so unlikely that this study lasted for 85 years. I mean, it’s unheard of. It’s never happened before. Most longitudinal studies stop before the ten-year mark because too many people drop out, making it untenable to keep going scientifically.
Dawson: The study shows that good relationships and social ties are key to happiness and good health. But if you are an introvert, are you doomed just not to be as happy as an extrovert?
Waldinger: I’m so glad you asked that question! No, you are not doomed. What we know is that introverts also need relationships. They just need fewer. So, for introverts, “a lot of people” is exhausting, right? It’s depleting. Whereas for extroverts, being with a lot of people is energizing. But that doesn’t mean introverts don’t want or need people. They just need very few of them. Maybe one or two. But everybody needs somebody, particularly somebody they can call on in times of need. And in times of crisis.
Dawson: When I was reading the book, I was thinking, is it merely subjective to say that hedonic happiness is subpar to eudaimonia? Images of David Lee Roth and Van Halen videos popped into my mind. What does the research indicate is really a happy life?
Waldinger: Right, hedonic well-being isn’t lesser than eudaimonic well-being. It’s like saying is my right arm lesser than my left arm. They’re just two facets of life, and everybody wants to have some of both. It’s just that we tend individually to prioritize one more than others. So, David Lee Roth, that’s hedonic, right? But he, too, probably wants a sense of meaning in something he does. And there are people who are much more into hedonism, partying, having fun in the moment. And some people who don’t care much about that but really care about meaning and purpose. But all of us, I would argue, want some of both.
Dawson: The message in the book was very moving.
It’s never too late to forge a happy life. You think of the end of A Christmas Carol when Scrooge realizes that relationships matter. How does this research speak to the neuroscience that brains continue to rewire into middle age and beyond?
Waldinger: Yes, yes, beyond. We’re learning a lot more about the plasticity of the brain, even as we get older. And what that means is that old dogs can learn new tricks, right? And that’s why we have that chapter in the book, It’s Never Too Late to Be Happy. That chapter comes from real-life stories. We have all these instances where it’s clear that people find the unexpected as they get older. People who are sure they’re never going to have decent relationships. Close friends find them. People find love for the first time in their seventies and eighties. We have data. It’s not some Pollyanna view of the world. It’s true. So, the message is, if you think that it’s too late for you, you have to remember you just don’t know what’s going to happen.
Dawson: Research shows that there is a happiness set point, but actions and choices account for about 40% of happiness. But you have to consciously put your mind to it. You talk about reflection, empathy, and action as what’s needed to make changes to be happier, yes?
Waldinger: Yes. There are ways to do it, and that’s some of what we lay out. What we found is there really are skills that allow us to do better at friendships and relationships. And they can be learned. And yes, you’re right, there is a kind of happiness set point. Sonja Lyubomirsky’s work estimates that about half of our happiness is inborn setpoint, temperament stuff. But 40% is a lot that’s within our control.
Dawson: A person may think that someone is their best friend or that they really cherish a relative. But when they add up the hours they actually spend with them, what you have in your mind may not be reality.
Waldinger: We imagine, “Oh, I’ll have time in the future to see my friends, to see my family. I’ll be there after I get through with this work task or after my kids are grown,” and what we find is that time just slips away. When our people got into their eighties, we asked them to look back on their lives, and we asked them to tell us what they most regretted and what they were proudest of. And the thing that people most regretted was not having spent enough time with the people they cared about. So, we have this fantasy that there will be plenty of time, and there isn’t.
Dawson: Can someone be a close friend or relationship if you don’t spend any time with them? Is it a fantasy that we think we’re closer to people than we are? Do you need to spend time in a room with someone to be close to them emotionally?
Waldinger: To everybody’s surprise, you can spend time online with people and feel close to them. But not with a thousand Facebook friends, no. But you could have one-on-one time and feel close to someone online. You don’t necessarily have to be in the same room. Being in the same room is different. Or taking a walk together or whatever – it really is so much more alive and vibrant. But a lot can be gained from being together virtually as well.
Dawson: Some people may not want relationships because they can be messy and uncomfortable. Families have issues. Relationships have issues. It might be more comfortable just not to get in the middle of that and send a Christmas card every year. What about people who’ve experienced abuse? Can finding the right partner be more important or more of a corrective experience than therapy?
Waldinger: It’s a great question. Is therapy more healing, or is it a good relationship that you find? We haven’t tested that. And nobody knows the answer to that question. But again, probably because, as with all things in life, one size doesn’t fit all. So, for some people, finding a partner who can really show you that relationships can be different, that can be the healing that you need. For other people, good therapy is lifesaving. So, it’s probably not either-or. Sometimes it’s both. If you’re really lucky, you find a good partner, and you get a good therapist. And that can go a long way to healing some of those wounds.
Dawson: The book discusses very close romantic attachments, warm friendships, and loose ties. You just don’t know the impact you’ll have on someone you interact with even slightly.
Waldinger: You don’t know.
People get so much energy and nourishment from even casual relationships. The person you befriend at your workplace who you don't know very well but is kind of friendly every day - that means a lot, that kind of connection.
Dawson: When it comes to socioeconomic status, well-being, and money, a 2010 study from Princeton University economist Angus Deaton and psychologist Daniel Kahneman reported that earning more than $75,000 annually didn’t notably increase happiness. What does the Harvard study show when it comes to money and happiness?
Waldinger: Well, we know that $75,000 was a rough estimate, right? More or less, depending on where you lived. But really, the message is that until your basic needs are met, yes, happiness goes up as you earn more money. Because you need a roof over your head, you need food security, you need access to healthcare, and to be able to take care of your kids’ education. You need all of that. And so, as you approach that threshold of taking care of your needs, happiness goes up the more you earn. But once you’ve done that…then you could make 75 million, and you don’t get that much of an increase in your happiness. You might get a bit, but not that much.
Dawson: Hence, Lotto winners who drop right back down to their baseline happiness levels a year later.
Dawson: I’m very curious about collective well-being. Can you elaborate on how it can be supported on a societal, governance, and architectural level? I think of the Gross National Happiness Index in Bhutan. What can we do here in the United States?
Waldinger: Bhutan is a great example. In Bhutan, if they introduce a bill into the legislature, it has to be analyzed from the point of view of gross national happiness, of collective happiness, collective well-being. Is it going to make people generally happier or less happy if this law is enacted? That’s a really useful lens through which to look at everything we propose.
You’re right that architecture also makes a difference. When people have places where they routinely come in contact with each other, they naturally develop relationships. That’s why the water cooler or the coffee machine at work has been so iconic, so important, because you end up seeing the same people and striking up conversations. What if you create spaces in communities where that’s more likely to happen, rather than these places where isolation is the norm? We could do a lot in that regard.
Dawson: Thank you so much. We live in a society that doesn’t always help individuals move toward happiness and health. This book and the research are an antidote to that.
Waldinger: That’s what I’m trying to do. That’s what this is about. That’s why I care so much about this work.
Alene Dawson is a Southern California-based writer known for her intelligent and popular features, cover stories, interviews, and award-winning publications. She’s a regular contributor to the LA Times.