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Robert Waldinger: What makes a good life? Lessons from the longest study on happiness

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What keeps us happy and healthy as we go through life? If you think it's fame and money, you're not alone – but, according to psychiatrist Robert Waldinger, you're mistaken. As the director of a 75-year-old study on adult development, Waldinger has unprecedented access to data on true happiness and satisfaction. In this talk, he shares three important lessons learned from the study as well as some practical, old-as-the-hills wisdom on how to build a fulfilling, long life.

- Psychiatrist, psychoanalyst and Zen priest
Robert Waldinger is the Director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, one of the most comprehensive longitudinal studies in history. Full bio

What keeps us healthy and happy
00:12
as we go through life?
00:15
If you were going to invest now
00:18
in your future best self,
00:21
where would you put your time
and your energy?
00:23
There was a recent survey of millennials
00:27
asking them what their
most important life goals were,
00:29
and over 80 percent said
00:34
that a major life goal for them
was to get rich.
00:36
And another 50 percent
of those same young adults
00:40
said that another major life goal
00:45
was to become famous.
00:47
(Laughter)
00:50
And we're constantly told
to lean in to work, to push harder
00:52
and achieve more.
00:58
We're given the impression that these
are the things that we need to go after
01:00
in order to have a good life.
01:04
Pictures of entire lives,
01:06
of the choices that people make
and how those choices work out for them,
01:08
those pictures
are almost impossible to get.
01:13
Most of what we know about human life
01:18
we know from asking people
to remember the past,
01:21
and as we know, hindsight
is anything but 20/20.
01:24
We forget vast amounts
of what happens to us in life,
01:29
and sometimes memory
is downright creative.
01:33
But what if we could watch entire lives
01:36
as they unfold through time?
01:41
What if we could study people
from the time that they were teenagers
01:44
all the way into old age
01:48
to see what really keeps people
happy and healthy?
01:50
We did that.
01:55
The Harvard Study of Adult Development
01:57
may be the longest study
of adult life that's ever been done.
01:59
For 75 years, we've tracked
the lives of 724 men,
02:05
year after year, asking about their work,
their home lives, their health,
02:13
and of course asking all along the way
without knowing how their life stories
02:17
were going to turn out.
02:22
Studies like this are exceedingly rare.
02:25
Almost all projects of this kind
fall apart within a decade
02:28
because too many people
drop out of the study,
02:33
or funding for the research dries up,
02:36
or the researchers get distracted,
02:39
or they die, and nobody moves the ball
further down the field.
02:41
But through a combination of luck
02:46
and the persistence
of several generations of researchers,
02:48
this study has survived.
02:52
About 60 of our original 724 men
02:54
are still alive,
02:59
still participating in the study,
03:00
most of them in their 90s.
03:02
And we are now beginning to study
03:05
the more than 2,000 children of these men.
03:07
And I'm the fourth director of the study.
03:11
Since 1938, we've tracked the lives
of two groups of men.
03:15
The first group started in the study
03:20
when they were sophomores
at Harvard College.
03:22
They all finished college
during World War II,
03:25
and then most went off
to serve in the war.
03:27
And the second group that we've followed
03:31
was a group of boys
from Boston's poorest neighborhoods,
03:33
boys who were chosen for the study
03:37
specifically because they were
from some of the most troubled
03:39
and disadvantaged families
03:43
in the Boston of the 1930s.
03:44
Most lived in tenements,
many without hot and cold running water.
03:47
When they entered the study,
03:54
all of these teenagers were interviewed.
03:56
They were given medical exams.
03:59
We went to their homes
and we interviewed their parents.
04:01
And then these teenagers
grew up into adults
04:05
who entered all walks of life.
04:07
They became factory workers and lawyers
and bricklayers and doctors,
04:10
one President of the United States.
04:16
Some developed alcoholism.
A few developed schizophrenia.
04:20
Some climbed the social ladder
04:25
from the bottom
all the way to the very top,
04:27
and some made that journey
in the opposite direction.
04:30
The founders of this study
04:35
would never in their wildest dreams
04:38
have imagined that I would be
standing here today, 75 years later,
04:40
telling you that
the study still continues.
04:45
Every two years, our patient
and dedicated research staff
04:49
calls up our men
and asks them if we can send them
04:52
yet one more set of questions
about their lives.
04:56
Many of the inner city Boston men ask us,
05:00
"Why do you keep wanting to study me?
My life just isn't that interesting."
05:03
The Harvard men never ask that question.
05:08
(Laughter)
05:11
To get the clearest picture
of these lives,
05:20
we don't just send them questionnaires.
05:23
We interview them in their living rooms.
05:26
We get their medical records
from their doctors.
05:29
We draw their blood, we scan their brains,
05:32
we talk to their children.
05:34
We videotape them talking with their wives
about their deepest concerns.
05:36
And when, about a decade ago,
we finally asked the wives
05:41
if they would join us
as members of the study,
05:45
many of the women said,
"You know, it's about time."
05:47
(Laughter)
05:50
So what have we learned?
05:51
What are the lessons that come
from the tens of thousands of pages
05:53
of information that we've generated
05:58
on these lives?
06:01
Well, the lessons aren't about wealth
or fame or working harder and harder.
06:03
The clearest message that we get
from this 75-year study is this:
06:10
Good relationships keep us
happier and healthier. Period.
06:16
We've learned three big lessons
about relationships.
06:23
The first is that social connections
are really good for us,
06:26
and that loneliness kills.
06:30
It turns out that people
who are more socially connected
06:33
to family, to friends, to community,
06:37
are happier, they're physically healthier,
and they live longer
06:40
than people who are less well connected.
06:45
And the experience of loneliness
turns out to be toxic.
06:48
People who are more isolated
than they want to be from others
06:51
find that they are less happy,
06:57
their health declines earlier in midlife,
07:00
their brain functioning declines sooner
07:03
and they live shorter lives
than people who are not lonely.
07:05
And the sad fact
is that at any given time,
07:10
more than one in five Americans
will report that they're lonely.
07:13
And we know that you
can be lonely in a crowd
07:19
and you can be lonely in a marriage,
07:21
so the second big lesson that we learned
07:24
is that it's not just
the number of friends you have,
07:26
and it's not whether or not
you're in a committed relationship,
07:29
but it's the quality
of your close relationships that matters.
07:33
It turns out that living in the midst
of conflict is really bad for our health.
07:38
High-conflict marriages, for example,
without much affection,
07:43
turn out to be very bad for our health,
perhaps worse than getting divorced.
07:47
And living in the midst of good,
warm relationships is protective.
07:53
Once we had followed our men
all the way into their 80s,
07:57
we wanted to look back at them at midlife
08:01
and to see if we could predict
08:04
who was going to grow
into a happy, healthy octogenarian
08:05
and who wasn't.
08:09
And when we gathered together
everything we knew about them
08:11
at age 50,
08:15
it wasn't their middle age
cholesterol levels
08:18
that predicted how they
were going to grow old.
08:20
It was how satisfied they were
in their relationships.
08:23
The people who were the most satisfied
in their relationships at age 50
08:27
were the healthiest at age 80.
08:31
And good, close relationships
seem to buffer us
08:35
from some of the slings and arrows
of getting old.
08:38
Our most happily partnered men and women
08:42
reported, in their 80s,
08:46
that on the days
when they had more physical pain,
08:48
their mood stayed just as happy.
08:51
But the people who were
in unhappy relationships,
08:54
on the days when they
reported more physical pain,
08:57
it was magnified by more emotional pain.
09:00
And the third big lesson that we learned
about relationships and our health
09:04
is that good relationships
don't just protect our bodies,
09:08
they protect our brains.
09:12
It turns out that being
in a securely attached relationship
09:14
to another person in your 80s
is protective,
09:19
that the people who are in relationships
09:23
where they really feel they can count
on the other person in times of need,
09:25
those people's memories
stay sharper longer.
09:29
And the people in relationships
09:32
where they feel they really
can't count on the other one,
09:34
those are the people who experience
earlier memory decline.
09:37
And those good relationships,
they don't have to be smooth all the time.
09:42
Some of our octogenarian couples
could bicker with each other
09:46
day in and day out,
09:49
but as long as they felt that they
could really count on the other
09:51
when the going got tough,
09:54
those arguments didn't take a toll
on their memories.
09:56
So this message,
10:01
that good, close relationships
are good for our health and well-being,
10:04
this is wisdom that's as old as the hills.
10:10
Why is this so hard to get
and so easy to ignore?
10:13
Well, we're human.
10:17
What we'd really like is a quick fix,
10:19
something we can get
10:21
that'll make our lives good
and keep them that way.
10:23
Relationships are messy
and they're complicated
10:27
and the hard work of tending
to family and friends,
10:30
it's not sexy or glamorous.
10:34
It's also lifelong. It never ends.
10:37
The people in our 75-year study
who were the happiest in retirement
10:40
were the people who had actively worked
to replace workmates with new playmates.
10:45
Just like the millennials
in that recent survey,
10:51
many of our men when they
were starting out as young adults
10:54
really believed that fame and wealth
and high achievement
10:58
were what they needed to go after
to have a good life.
11:02
But over and over, over these 75 years,
our study has shown
11:06
that the people who fared the best were
the people who leaned in to relationships,
11:10
with family, with friends, with community.
11:16
So what about you?
11:21
Let's say you're 25,
or you're 40, or you're 60.
11:23
What might leaning in
to relationships even look like?
11:27
Well, the possibilities
are practically endless.
11:31
It might be something as simple
as replacing screen time with people time
11:35
or livening up a stale relationship
by doing something new together,
11:41
long walks or date nights,
11:46
or reaching out to that family member
who you haven't spoken to in years,
11:49
because those all-too-common family feuds
11:54
take a terrible toll
11:57
on the people who hold the grudges.
12:00
I'd like to close with a quote
from Mark Twain.
12:04
More than a century ago,
12:09
he was looking back on his life,
12:11
and he wrote this:
12:14
"There isn't time, so brief is life,
12:16
for bickerings, apologies,
heartburnings, callings to account.
12:20
There is only time for loving,
12:26
and but an instant,
so to speak, for that."
12:29
The good life is built
with good relationships.
12:34
Thank you.
12:39
(Applause)
12:40

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About the Speaker:

Robert Waldinger - Psychiatrist, psychoanalyst and Zen priest
Robert Waldinger is the Director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, one of the most comprehensive longitudinal studies in history.

Why you should listen

Robert Waldinger is a psychiatrist, psychoanalyst and Zen priest. He is Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and directs the Harvard Study of Adult Development, one of the longest-running studies of adult life ever done. The Study tracked the lives of two groups of men for over 75 years, and it now follows their Baby Boomer children to understand how childhood experience reaches across decades to affect health and wellbeing in middle age. He writes about what science and Zen can teach us about healthy human development.

Dr. Waldinger is the author of numerous scientific papers as well as two books. He teaches medical students and psychiatry residents at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, and he is a Senior Dharma Teacher in Boundless Way Zen.

To keep abreast of research findings, insights and more, visit robertwaldinger.com.

More profile about the speaker
Robert Waldinger | Speaker | TED.com