A Conversation with Dr. Robert J. Waldinger on The Largest Ever Study into Happiness.

A Conversation with Dr. Robert J. Waldinger on The Largest Ever Study into Happiness.

The Harvard Study of Adult Development is an extraordinary scientific endeavour that began in 1938 and is still going strong. For over eight decades, the study has tracked the same individuals and their families, asking thousands of questions and taking hundreds of measurements—from brain scans to blood work—with the goal of discovering what really makes for a good life. Leading this study is Dr. Robert J. Waldinger. His work has given us unparalleled depth of insight into the factors that contribute to a fulfilling life. The Harvard Study has illuminated the profound importance of relationships, health, and personal satisfaction in shaping our well-being. The study’s findings have not only redefined our understanding of happiness but also inspired a shift in societal attitudes towards mental health and personal fulfilment.   

Now, Waldinger is sharing his insights in his new book, “The Good Life: Lessons from the World’s Longest Study on Happiness“. This compelling read distills decades of groundbreaking research into an engaging exploration of what truly matters in life. Waldinger’s book is not just a testament to the power of science in illuminating the human condition, but also a guide, offering readers practical wisdom on how to cultivate their own ‘good life’.  

In this interview, I speak to Dr. Robert J. Waldinger, the Author, Zen Priest and Professor, who leads the Harvard Study on Adult Development. We discuss what a study of thousands of people, from birth through to old-age reveals about what really matters to lead a ‘good life.’  

Q: What is the unique power of the Harvard Study of Adult Development? 

[Robert J Waldinger]: This research represents the most extensive longitudinal study of human beings ever conducted. Initiated in 1938, it has continued unbroken for a remarkable 85 years. The study initially began with 724 individual participants. Over time, it expanded to include their families, and so, it now encompasses 724 distinct families.  

What sets this study apart is the longitudinal method employed. The same individuals are revisited repeatedly, garnering insights about their lives time and time again. The approach varies, studying the participants in different contexts and from unique perspectives. In contrast, the majority of research tends to be cross-sectional, focusing on studying a specific group of people at a single point in time regarding a particular parameter. Our ongoing study, on the other hand, is exceptional in its scope and execution. It continues to this day, yielding new insights with each passing year. 

Q: What are the key conclusions the study makes about what it takes to have a good life? 

[Robert J Waldinger]: The study led us to two significant findings. The first aligns with common wisdom – prioritising one’s health has a considerable impact on lifespan and sustained wellness. However, the second discovery was quite revealing. We found that those who enjoyed the best health, and not just the greatest happiness, were the individuals who had nurtured stronger relationships with others.  

From this, we deduced that those who put considerable effort into maintaining their relationships navigated life’s challenges with greater ease. Their journey through life was not just more pleasant, but their physical health and mental well-being also seemed to thrive as they aged. It was indeed a fascinating revelation that interpersonal relationships can have such profound impacts on overall health and happiness. 

Q:  Why has society not prioritised what really matters? 

[Robert J Waldinger]: Part of the reason lies in the constant barrage of messages we receive from our culture. These messages often champion material purchases as a route to happiness. Consider the countless advertisements that suggest that acquiring a new guitar will enhance your joy, or that serving a particular brand of pasta will guarantee delightful family dinners. These are the messages we’re inundated with day in and day out.    

Then, there are factors like wealth and fame, accolades and recognition – these are tangible. They can be pointed to and displayed with a triumphant ‘Look, I’ve achieved this.’ In contrast, relationships are more nebulous. They can’t be precisely measured or effectively compared with others’. Sure, one might attempt to, but it’s hardly a successful endeavour.  

That’s why these tangible yet deceptive indicators of happiness are so alluring. They create the illusion that we can objectively rank our happiness in comparison to others. But the truth, as the study reveals, might lie elsewhere, in the intangible realm of relationships. 

[Vikas: What about societal pressures to endlessly ‘pursue happiness’?] 

[Robert J Waldinger]:  One of my Zen mentors, Barry Magid, authored a book entitled “Ending the Pursuit of Happiness“. In it, he criticises the concept of chasing happiness as a curative fantasy – the mistaken belief that happiness is an attainable, sustainable, and permanent state. The reality is, no one is in a state of perpetual happiness; such an idea is simply inconsistent with the human experience.  

Therefore, our research doesn’t focus on happiness per se, but rather on wellbeing. We explore the conditions that encourage feeling good more often than not, which is distinctly different from the fleeting nature of happiness. For instance, I may be happy right now while engaging in this pleasant conversation with you. However, an hour later, I might encounter an annoying or upsetting event, and my happiness could evaporate. 

This emotional volatility isn’t something we can control. But what we can influence is the foundation of our wellbeing. That’s where the importance of cultivating relationships comes into play, as fostering strong relationships is a manageable aspect that can significantly contribute to our overall wellbeing.

Q: Do we need social fitness?  

[Robert J Waldinger]: When we crafted that phrase, it was because we saw a similarity with physical fitness. If you work out today, you don’t return home and declare, ‘Great, I’m finished, I never have to exercise again.’ Staying fit requires ongoing commitment. In the same vein, we’ve discovered that those with the strongest social bonds are the individuals who diligently nurture them. They’re proactive in both maintaining their existing relationships and forming new ones throughout their lives. 

In this sense, maintaining social connections is akin to physical fitness. It’s a regular commitment, something you do on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis, and it’s a process that never truly ends. This constant attention and effort are what create enduring social bonds, much like regular exercise leads to sustained physical health. 

The crux of the matter is that relationships are an emotional exchange hub. We bestow energy upon one another, help each other de-stress, and ignite joy in each other’s lives – these transactions are largely emotional. Indeed, such exchanges can occur remotely, perhaps via a video chat. However, we must acknowledge that the digital realm filters out a significant portion of our emotional bandwidth.   

Reflect, if you will, on the moment you reunited with your friends or family post-lockdown. The wave of exhilaration you experienced, that feeling of ‘Oh my gosh, we’re finally together again,’ far exceeds what a simple WhatsApp chat can convey. Physical presence in relationships can offer an emotional richness that digital communication often lacks. 

Q: What about the focus so many have on work, status and money? 

[Robert J Waldinger]: When our original participants reached approximately 80 years of age, we invited them to reflect on their lives. We asked, ‘What are your greatest sources of pride, and what are your deepest regrets?’ The predominant regret was the disproportionate time spent working and the inadequate time spent with loved ones.    

When it came to their sources of pride, it’s important to note that among these individuals, one was a former U.S. President, numerous others were recipients of prestigious awards, CEOs, and multimillionaires. Despite these notable achievements, none of them cited these accomplishments when discussing their pride. Not a single one. Instead, they highlighted their roles as good bosses, good parents, good spouses, good mentors, and good friends. Their focus was entirely on their relationships.   

So, it appears that when people take stock of their lives, it’s not the allure of wealth, fame, or achievements that they cherish the most. These tempting aspects of youth and middle age lose their glitter in the twilight years. Instead, it’s the quality of their relationships that individuals take the most pride in. 

Q: Does fulfilment come from really focussing on what we have control over, such as our health? 

[Robert J Waldinger]: …our control over our health is only partial. While we can make efforts to maintain a healthy lifestyle, there are aspects of our health we simply can’t dictate. Similarly, we don’t have complete control over friendships, given the dynamic nature of human relationships. People evolve, circumstances change, and sometimes we’re taken aback by unexpected events in our friendships, both positive and negative. It’s crucial to recognise these factors as being under limited control, if you will. 

However, what we do understand is that a network of positive relationships and good health practices can considerably boost our resilience. We’re far more likely to navigate through challenging times effectively if we’ve cultivated these. After all, resilience is essentially the ability to weather life’s storms and come out stronger. It’s this very resilience that our study advocates for, through fostering robust relationships and maintaining one’s health.  

Q: How did participants, over the long-run, deal with emotional trauma? 

[Robert J Waldinger]: We delved deeply into this topic in our research, and what we discovered was rather enlightening. We found that individuals who habitually pushed away problems and difficulties, or those who opted to ignore their issues or avoid confronting them, tended to suffer more and fared less well overall.    

On the other hand, those who confronted their troubles directly, often seeking the support of others to navigate through these challenges, were the ones who exhibited the highest levels of resilience and ultimately attained the most happiness. It’s evident from our study that facing hardships head-on, coupled with a supportive network, truly fosters resilience and contentment.  

Q: How can we apply the learnings of the study to leadership and workplaces? 

[Robert J Waldinger]: You might be aware that the Gallup organisation conducted a survey involving 15 million workers, asking them, ‘Do you have a best friend at work?’ What they meant was, ‘Do you have someone at work with whom you can discuss personal matters?’ Only 30% of workers affirmed they had such a connection at work. However, this 30% demonstrated significantly higher job engagement, superior performance, and less likelihood to leave their job for a more enticing offer. The common denominator? They had colleagues at work they cared about and who cared for them in return. 

The implications of this for leaders are profound. By fostering an environment that encourages employees to get to know each other on a personal level, leaders can cultivate a happier, more engaged, and more productive workforce. It’s something that leaders themselves can and should model, rather than delegating it solely to the human resources department.  

For instance, consider the practice of our U.S. Surgeon General, Vivek Murthy. At the start of his weekly staff meetings, he reserved the first five minutes for an individual to share something personal they wanted others to know. His team adored this segment, as it sparked myriad conversations offline, revealing shared interests and hobbies among colleagues. The idea here is to actively structure the environment to encourage personal connections, from leadership down. By doing so, we can create a significantly happier and more engaged workforce. 

[Vikas: Why do we see so much resistance to this at leadership level?]  

[Robert J Waldinger]: The resistance, I believe, stems largely from the fear of revealing vulnerability. For instance, leaders may worry that admitting to having experienced depression might lead others to question their leadership capabilities, thinking they might be unfit to lead. This, of course, is a misperception. If you continue to demonstrate your leadership skills, people will realise that you can be an effective leader despite having experienced depression.    

The concern, however, lies in the fear that any indication of weakness may erode one’s leadership potential. But this fear is fundamentally unfounded. Everyone, at a basic level, understands that we are all susceptible to difficulties and have our low moments. Acknowledging this universal truth is integral to our shared human experience. Thus, those who are unable to display vulnerability often end up suffering more than those who permit themselves to show some degree of weakness. Recognising and expressing our vulnerabilities can, in fact, be a strength, making us more relatable and approachable as leaders.  

Q: How can governments apply the learnings of the study to population health? 

[Robert J Waldinger]: Indeed, there’s an entire domain known as socio-emotional learning that focuses on these skills. It’s essentially a comprehensive curriculum for students that helps them understand emotions and social interactions. It teaches students what feelings are, how to recognise and manage anger, how to resolve disputes with peers, identify bullying, and protect themselves and others from such behaviours.    

These crucial lessons are imparted in classrooms, and the impact is profound. Not only are these children happier and more well-behaved, but they also exhibit enhanced academic performance. They do better in reading and mathematics and perform well in all their academic pursuits. This improvement is largely attributed to their emotional calmness and stability, which enhance their ability to listen and assimilate the necessary information. 

What this underscores is the power of emotional learning. When individuals are taught to navigate their emotions and social interactions, they thrive in all aspects of life, be it personal or academic.  

Q: What can we all do – from today – to improve the long term wellbeing in our lives?  

[Robert J Waldinger]: My recommendation is that we all actively engage in maintaining our relationships, even in the smallest ways. What might that look like? It could be as simple as reaching out to someone you’ve missed or would like to reconnect with after you’re done reading this interview. It could be a text, an email, or even a phone call to say, ‘Hey, I was thinking about you and wanted to touch base.’  

Consider incorporating this into your daily routine. Set up regular catch-up sessions with those you’re close to, ensuring you remain updated on each other’s lives. If you consistently engage in these small acts of connection, day after day, week after week, you’ll find abundant benefits flowing back to you. These seemingly minor acts of keeping in touch can bring about substantial returns in the long run. 

Q: What does legacy mean to you? 

[Robert J Waldinger]: To me, legacy signifies aiding individuals to enhance their lives and alleviate their suffering as they navigate life’s journey. This applies to my wife and two sons, extends to my friends, and even beyond, to others I may not know personally. That’s precisely why I’ve agreed to this conversation with you.  

When you reached out for this discussion, I agreed because I am deeply committed to sharing these messages with people. I aspire for my legacy to be a message that continues to resonate after I’m gone—a message that encourages people to slightly adjust their approach to life because they’ve heard what I have to say. The ripple effect of these changes is the legacy I wish to leave behind.  

Thought Economics

About the Author

Vikas Shah MBE DL is an entrepreneur, investor & philanthropist. He is CEO of Swiscot Group alongside being a venture-investor in a number of businesses internationally. He is a Non-Executive Board Member of the UK Government’s Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy and a Non-Executive Director of the Solicitors Regulation Authority. Vikas was awarded an MBE for Services to Business and the Economy in Her Majesty the Queen’s 2018 New Year’s Honours List and in 2021 became a Deputy Lieutenant of the Greater Manchester Lieutenancy. He is an Honorary Professor of Business at The Alliance Business School, University of Manchester and Visiting Professors at the MIT Sloan Lisbon MBA.