Bob Waldinger is a psychiatrist, a professor at Harvard Medical School, and the Director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, the world’s longest scientific study of happiness. His new book, The Good Life, with Dr. Marc Schulz, provides insights regarding what makes some people happier and more satisfied than others. At a time when many of us, particularly young adults, are reporting symptoms antonymous to happiness, such as loneliness and disconnection, the insights he shares based on this research are particularly relevant.
LW: Your new book, The Good Life, is based on the work you have done in the Harvard Study of Adult Development. Can you describe the study?
RW: I am the fourth director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development. As far as we know, it's the longest study of adult life that's ever been done in that it follows the same people from when they were teenagers all the way into old age. We're in our 85th year and we have reached out to the children of our participants as well, the second generation. All in all, we’ve followed over 2,000 people over many decades. In essence, this is a study of human thriving and wellbeing. It started with two groups of males, one very privileged group of male undergraduate students from Harvard College and one very underprivileged group of boys from Boston's poorest neighborhoods and most troubled families. It started with these two contrasting groups of people and then, over time, we brought in their wives and their children. Currently, more than half of those in our study are women.
Now, we have this wonderful treasure trove of information on 724 families across 85 years. The study has discovered so many things. There have been hundreds of papers and scores of books, but there are two big takeaways I think are most salient, and very relevant today. One is, no surprise at all, taking care of your health really matters in terms of how long you live and how you feel during your life. Preventative healthcare, exercise, diet, not abusing alcohol or drugs, not smoking—all of that really matters. The finding that we didn't expect, and, at first, we didn't believe, was that the people who stayed the healthiest and lived the longest were the people who had the best connections with other people; that our relational lives make a huge difference in not just how happy we are, but how healthy we are and how long we live. And it's not just our study that has found this, but now many other studies, so there’s now a fairly well-established finding that there is a powerful connection between relationships and health.
LW: I think it's interesting that you started with college students. We know from the data how prominent mental health struggles are for this population. What does your work tell us about this age group?
RW: What we know, not just from our study, but from a lot of studies, is that people ages 16-to-24 are the loneliest group of people, at least in the United States, and perhaps around the world—these young adults—adolescents moving into young adulthood—are the most isolated, disconnected population group. And that's been a surprise to older people who look at young people and think of them as active and involved and so connected with one other. And, of course, many young people are, but there's a huge subset of young people who are not, who are feeling really disconnected. And this is not just a function of the COVID pandemic, it was in the works before then, COVID just accelerated the upsurge in issues like depression, anxiety, and a sense of isolation.
LW: If you're providing some advice based on your data, what might you tell that 19-year-old or 20-year-old who is in college now about the importance of relationships?
RW: We know that we get all kinds of value from relationships, and we don't get the same things [from each one]; relationships are all slightly different. Some relationships are fun, and some relationships are with people we confide in, and some relationships are simply with people who might help us move furniture or drive us to an appointment. Many relationships can serve more than one function, but almost no relationship is going to provide everything. And what that means is, we need to look to different people to meet all kinds of different needs. The best relationships, of course, are relationships that are reciprocal. And one of the things that feels bad about relationships is when they're not reciprocal, when it feels like I'm always the one who calls my friend or I'm always the one helping out, and I don't get that in return.
Mutuality is really important. And one of the things I would ask young people to think about is: How mutual are your relationships? And if they're not, can you work on that or can you find some people with whom it's more mutual? Similarly, what we learn is that conflict is inevitable in relationships. That does not mean you want to get rid of that relationship in your life. In fact, if we have enough invested in good relationships then it's worth trying to work out conflicts. The work is not to find a conflict-free friend, but to find a friend with whom you can talk to about disagreements. And both people come out feeling okay, like nobody won and nobody lost and that, if anything, you are stronger together because you've worked out differences.
LW: This is for friendships and romantic relationships, correct?
RW: Romantic relationships for sure. There is no real romantic relationship without conflict. When I look at people who are about to get married, sometimes I will evaluate couples who come for therapy, and the real question is not, “Are they each other's soulmate?” but “How do they work out conflicts?” And if they can work out conflicts, they have a good future together. If they can't find any way to talk about disagreements and come out the other side feeling okay, then they're in trouble. They either have to develop skills to resolve conflict, or they should find another person with whom it's not so difficult.
LW: You have some interesting data about perspective and lifespan. What’s that all about?
RW: Even now, at my age I think, "Why doesn't everybody think just like me?" And I have to remember from my own research and from looking around me that people think very differently at different ages. People of college-age are going to have a certain view of the world, a certain view of culture, of politics, of the future that older people don't have, that younger people don't have. And that's actually a good thing, because we wouldn't want a world that was filled with everybody who had the same perspective on life or even one generation dominating everything. Actually, the baby boomers probably dominated a lot of culture for a lot of years and didn't always turn out so well.
I think that the thing we learn from following people over time is that things change in their importance. Let's say you're 20 years old now, think about when you were half that age when you were 10 years old, what was important to you then? Well, it's probably not at all the same stuff that's important to you now. And when you're 30, it's going to shift again. And when you're 40…and that's okay, that's normal. It's to be expected. But it means that to some extent, we all have to hold our own perspectives a little more lightly and realize that it's not the only way to look at life.
LW: What implications does your research have on finding direction in life?
RW: My sense is that we know that the college years are where we do a lot of figuring out of who we are. “What kind of person am I? Who do I want to align with? What do I value the most? And therefore, how do I want to spend my time on this earth? [Time] is pretty limited, even though it may not seem that way when you're in college. We can teach ourselves to think about, “What do I value the most?” And if that's what I value the most, am I actually spending my time promoting those values, doing things that align with those values? Or am I doing things that don't align with those values at all? In my own life, I've ended up taking jobs that I don't really care about and don't really like, and that actually promote things I don't believe in.
It's been really important for me to turn back to my own values and say, "Okay, as soon as I can, I'm going to make a change because this is not energizing for me. It's not making me feel like my time is being well-spent." And I think that's the thing that can start when we go to college or university. It's the thing you can do from day one, and it can help you with course choices. It can help you choose a major. It can help you think about summer internships. It can help you think about where you want to go after college. Then you can settle on some core things that you care deeply about that can become your North Star toward which you can point your decision.
LW: I know in your workshops you ask people about their core values. Should we be doing this more with young people, with college students?
RW: Yes. We all have values, but we don't quite know what they are until someone asks us to clarify them. I'll give you an example. We've started bringing my two sons, who are in their thirties, into our process of deciding about our philanthropy each year. There are a host of good causes, but we had to decide as a family what we were going to give to. And it turned out that my sons value some things differently than I value. I wanted to help with poverty and disease. They wanted to work on climate change. All of them are really important issues. And that's just a way of saying that even clarifying values is something we don't always do until someone asks us, and that’s a really good thing.
LW: What are your thoughts on socio-emotional learning?
RW: My friends who work in socio-emotional learning say that when teachers are given curricula to teach the children in their classrooms about feelings or having an argument with a friend, the teachers come back and say, “We need this for us.” What we know is that everybody needs this. You need it at a different level if you’re in college or if you’re a teacher in the middle of your career, but you need it. All of us need it. I practice Zen and a lot of Zen meditation is learning those emotional skills. It’s watching all the feelings and thoughts that come up and drive you crazy and then learning how to work with them.
LW: What would be your number one piece of advice for young people out there based on all you have learned?
RW: Invest in connections with other people. It has the biggest payoff, both in terms of making us happier because it’s more fun to be connected, and in helping us get through the hard times, and the hard times are always coming along when we least expect them. It's a really good investment of time and energy. Don't neglect it. Don't assume that your relationships will just take care of themselves. Keep your friendships going. Keep reaching out.