Started in 1938, the Harvard Study of Adult Development represents the longest study on happiness ever conducted. It set out to follow a group of men through every stage of their lives, from youth to old age, to discover what factors lead people to flourish.
Here to share some of the insights that have been gleaned from the Harvard Study of Adult Development is Dr. Robert Waldinger, the current director of the project and the co-author of The Good Life: Lessons from the World’s Longest Scientific Study of Happiness. Today on the show, Robert explains how the study has affirmed the absolute primacy of relationships in happiness and how to develop the “social fitness” to make and enrich those vital connections. We discuss what the happily married couples in the study did differently, and why happiness in marriage tends to follow a U-shaped curve which hits its low point in midlife. We talk about how the way you were raised helps set a trajectory for your life, but how it’s also possible to overcome a rough upbringing to become a transitional character in your family. We also discuss the role that friends and work played in the happiness of the men who participated in the study. We end our conversation with what folks in every stage of development — whether youth, midlife, or older age — should focus on to live a flourishing life.
Resources Related to the Episode
- AoM Article: Love Is All You Need: Insights from the Longest Longitudinal Study on Men Ever Conducted
- AoM article and podcast on how and why to have weekly marriage meetings
- AoM Podcast #795: The U-Shaped Curve of Happiness
- AoM Article: You Don’t Have to Be Your Dad — How to Become Your Family’s Transitional Character
- AoM Podcast #742: The Power of Talking to Strangers
- A Eulogy for My Grandfather, William D. Hurst
Connect With Robert Waldinger
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast, started in 1938. The Harvard study of adult development represent the longest study on happiness ever conducted. It set out to follow a group of men through every stage of their lives from youth to old age to discover what factors lead people to flourish here to share some of the insights that have been gleaned from the Harvard study of adult development is Dr. Robert Waldinger, the current director of the project, and the co-author of The Good Life. Lessons from the world’s longest scientific study of happiness.
Today on the show, Robert explains how the study has affirmed the absolute primacy of relationships with happiness and how to develop the social fitness, to make and enrich those vital connections we discussed with the happily married couples and the study did differently on why happiness and marriage tends to follow a U-shaped curve, which is its low point in mid-life, we talk about how the way you’re raised help, set a trajectory for your life, but how it’s possible to overcome a rough upbringing, become a transitional character in our family, we also discuss the role that friends and work played in the happiness of the men who participated in the study we enter a conversation with what folks in every stage of development, whether youth, mid-life or older age should focus on to live a flourishing life. After the show is over, check at our show notes at aom.is/happiness.
Robert Waldinger, welcome to the show.
Robert Waldinger: Thank you. Glad to be here.
Brett McKay: So you are the Director of the Harvard study of adult development, and this is a study on human happiness flourishing, that’s been going on since 1938, and you recently co-authored a book with Marc Schulz about what you and other researchers have discovered in this 85-year-old study about human happiness. Before we get into the book, let’s talk about study itself, when it started, what was the aim of the study and who were the individuals being studied, give us a big picture overview of this Harvard study of adult development.
Robert Waldinger: Sure, so it was actually two studies that didn’t even know about each other, well, it started… One study was at Harvard University Student Health Service, it was a study of undergraduates, sophomores from the classes of 1939 to 1942, their deans thought they were fine, upstanding young men, and they want to do a study of young adulthood and normal development, so of course, you study all white guys from Harvard. It’s totally politically incorrect now, but at that point, that’s what they wanted to study, and then the other study was started by a Harvard Law School professor, Sheldon Glueck and his wife, Eleanor Glueck, who was a social worker.
They were interested in juvenile delinquency and particularly why some kids born into really underprivileged, impoverished, troubled families, why those kids managed to stay on good developmental paths, not get into trouble, but really develop into upstanding young guys, and so both of those studies then were combined by my predecessor, so that they’re very contrasting groups, like a very privileged group, and a very underprivileged group, and we followed them all for their whole lives, we brought in their wives at one point when I started with the study 20 years ago. And then we reached out to all their children, more than half of whom are women, so now we’ve studied over 2000 people in 724 families.
Brett McKay: And so this is called a longitudinal study where you take somebody or a group of people and you study them, not just for at a moment in their life. But across their entire life, ’cause I think this is interesting, what are the benefits of doing a longitudinal study like this, what insights can you get that you can’t get when you do a study, when you just look at a person at a particular moment in their life?
Robert Waldinger: That’s such an important question, and most research is done by just looking at particular moments, so the best way I can give you an example is through a joke, so often we take snapshots, like if we were to do a study of people in their 20s and then also some people in their 40s, and in their 80s, we’d take snapshots at different ages, but there’s a senator from Florida named Claude Pepper, who once said, when I look at my state of Florida… And particularly South Florida, I would have to believe that you are born Cuban and you die Jewish. That the issue is that we tend, if we just take snapshots at different points of life to make connections, that aren’t real, that we think we know how life proceeds, but it’s not often the case, so by following the same people throughout their entire lives, we really can see whole lives play out, and we’ve done that with thousands of people now.
Brett McKay: So in this study, so you’re, they’re researching or studying Harvard sophomores and they’ve been following on their entire life, then there’s a group of under privileged kids, these poor kids, what kind of questions were the researchers asking these individuals throughout their life.
Robert Waldinger: They were asking questions about the big domains of life, so mental health, physical health, work, satisfaction. Did you get promoted? Did you get fired? How much do you like your work relationships, all kinds of relationships, not just romantic partnerships, but friendships and casual relationships in the community. So we asked all those questions, and of course, we relied a lot on their reports to us, their questionnaire, self-reports, but we also then began to bring in other sources of information, we began to videotape them, talking with their partners, we began to draw blood for DNA and that’s so cool, because if you think about it, DNA wasn’t even imagined in 1938, and when I came on in the 2000s, we started measuring DNA, we bring them into our lab and we stress them out and see how quickly they recover, and all of these are different windows on human thriving.
Brett McKay: So after decades of looking at the lives of these men and even the lives of their children, the study has gone on to a second generation, what’s the most important thing that you and the researchers involved in the study have learned?
Robert Waldinger: Well, we took away two big things, and one won’t surprise you, it’s that taking care of your health really matters, exercising regularly, not smoking, not abusing alcohol or drugs, eating right, all that stuff matters hugely for your happiness, for your health for your longevity, but the surprise for us was that the people who stayed healthy the longest, who were the happiest and who lived the longest, were the people who had the best connections, the warmest connections with other people as they went through their lives, the surprise was, you know… Okay, it stands to reason that if you have a good relationship, you’d be happier, but how could it predict that you would be less likely to get coronary artery disease or type 2 diabetes? How could that possibly happen? And that’s what we began to study, many other research groups have found the same thing, so we have a lot of confidence in these findings, they’re very strong.
Brett McKay: When… The point you make is that what’s nice about the study is that you have two groups that come from different social strata, so you have the Harvard guys, and then you have the kids who are poor, and what you found is that where you started off in life didn’t necessarily correlate with how you would end up later on in life, if you’re flourishing in life, there were men who were great at the beginning of their life and then they died just unhappy, unhealthy, etcetera, then there were boys who were poor and destitute, but they grew up into flourishing human beings.
Robert Waldinger: Exactly, exactly. And we found that it wasn’t much to do with wealth, it wasn’t much to do with achievement and certainly not fame, even though everybody feels like they want those things, that it was about taking care of themselves and their families, and about the strength of their connections that those were the things that really mattered.
Brett McKay: So you mentioned the strength of relationships in a person’s life contributed to their physical health, they’re less likely to get type 2 diabetes, coronary disease. Did the satisfaction or the strength of relationships correlate to other life outcomes like careers or… Things like that?
Robert Waldinger: Absolutely, so what we know from our study and other studies is that if you are good with people, if you have good people skills and you prioritize good relationships, you do better at your work, you are occupationally, more successful compared with other people who may be brilliant, but aren’t so good with other people, so this prioritizing of relationships really matters in your work life, not just in your home life…
Brett McKay: Yeah, I think I’ve seen looking at the study, there’s things like men with at least one good relationship with their sibling growing up made 51000 more per year, than men who had poor relationships with their siblings or no siblings at all. I think another one I saw was men with warm mothers took home $87000 more than those men whose mothers were uncaring, but I think the point you make, throughout the book is that even if you had a bad childhood doesn’t mean you’re destined to not make as much money, but generally, if you look at the outcomes of individuals, you see those correlations.
Robert Waldinger: Well, you do that childhood experience really matters, but there’s a lot of room for correction, course correction, so very often people who find a good partner can really change what they expect in relationships so let’s say you grew up in a really difficult family where you couldn’t trust people or people were mean and emotionally abusive or even physically abusive, if you’re able to find a partner, if you’re able to find friends who are reliable, who are kind, who are stable, often that goes a long way to correcting your own expectations about life.
Brett McKay: So social relationships are most important thing, it’s gonna correlate to you having a flourishing life in all aspects of your life, and this is not to say that being born into poverty or wealth is gonna not have an influence. It will, but the relationships, the power of those warm relationships are going to… Can overcome those influences. So one of the things that you and your colleague have developed with this understanding that from the study that relationships, the power of relationships, is the thing that allows us to flourish in life, you develop this idea of social fitness, and I really like this idea of thinking of our social life in terms of fitness, how would you describe social fitness, like what makes it up, and how do you measure social fitness?
Robert Waldinger: Yeah, well, what we did was we coined that phrase just as a way to be analogous to physical fitness, because with physical fitness, if you think about it, if you exercise today, you don’t come back home and say, gee, I’m done… I don’t ever have to do that again. We know that physical fitness is a lifelong practice, and similarly, what we find is that with our relationships, there is a kind of social fitness, there’s a practice that… You know, when I was in my 20s, I used to think that my good friends were always gonna be my friends from school, from college, now they were just there, no need to worry about them, but it turns out when we watch friendships over time that many really good relationships can just wither away and die because of neglect, not because there’s anything wrong in the relationships, and so what we’ve learned is that the people who are the best at maintaining social connections are active, they make it a practice. And so what I mean by that is they take care to reach out to somebody to make sure they have regular contact to connect when it’s been too long, and they wanna make sure that they catch up with the people who they wanna really keep in their lives you know, I’ll tell you, for example, that. My co-author, Marc Schulz and I became buddies, became friends when we were apprentices in somebody’s research lab, like 30 years ago.
Well, he since moved to Pennsylvania where he’s a psychology professor, but we have a phone call every Friday, noon, and we talk about, yes, we talk about our research and our writing, but we talk about our kids and our wives and our personal lives. That’s hugely important in maintaining a vibrant friendship that otherwise I’m sure would have just withered away.
Brett McKay: And the other reason I like this idea of social fitness, I think this could be very appealing to men who often think of… Not always, but I think they often think that social skills are just something to either have or you don’t, but this idea of social fitness is no, you can act, it’s like getting stronger or getting better at endurance, it’s a skill that you can develop with training and practice, I think that can be appealing…
Robert Waldinger: Absolutely. Yeah, and there’s some ways you can do it. So first is to be active, as I was saying, but another way is simply to be curious about another person, so if you say, well, I don’t know how to talk to people, all you have to do is be curious, so let’s say at work, you see somebody who’s got something interesting, they’re displaying on their desk, like a little object or a photo, just ask them about it. People love to talk about themselves, or if you know that somebody has a particular hobby, ask them… If somebody plays fantasy football, just ask them about it, what’s it like, what do they do? It could be anything, that what we find is that if we bring curiosity to our encounters with other people… Conversations get going pretty easily.
Brett McKay: I think you broke down social fitness, this is how I interpreted it. So correct me if I’m wrong. There’s two key components. The one you’re talking about now is attending, making a focus on attending to the people that are in your life, and then time spent, and I like this idea of this attending to them, so you talked about how you can attend more to people or pay more attention to people, ask questions, be curious. And anything else that you found from the study that the men who really thrived with their social life, what else did they do to pay more attention to the people around them?
Robert Waldinger: Sure. Well, to spend some time on that idea of attending on attention, one of the things we’re worried about a lot now is this problem that we’re all giving each other partial attention a lot of the time, so that even when we’re together in the same room, we’re often on our screens and maybe half paying attention to each other or not paying attention to each other at all, think about the last time you saw people in a restaurant where everybody was sitting at a table, presumably friends or family, and everybody was on their phone, not even looking at each other.
So one of the things we want people to think about is being very intentional to give each other full attention, one of my Zen teachers has this famous quote that I love, he said Attention is the most basic form of love. And what he means by that is attention our full, undivided attention, is probably the greatest gift we have to give to somebody else, and it’s not that hard to do, you just have to really pay attention to it, you have to be mindful and intentional and say, okay, I’m gonna put down my phone, I’m gonna put away my screen, I’m gonna look at this person and give them my full attention…
Brett McKay: So yeah, I think one question you propose that people ask themselves every day to increase the amount of attention they give the people in their lives is what action could I take today, to give attention and appreciation to someone who deserves it, so think about that and then set a goal to attend to that person…
Robert Waldinger: Yeah, and then notice how it feels, because what you’ll find is that it actually feels good to do that, that when you appreciate somebody first of all, you get a lot of good stuff back usually, but also it just feels good to do it.
Brett McKay: Okay social fitness, one part is the attending part, the other part is time, just as your physical fitness, if you wanna get more fit, physically, the more time you spend exercising, the more fit you’re gonna get, I imagine the same is the same with social fitness, the more time you engage in social activities, the fitter, you’re gonna get?
Robert Waldinger: Absolutely, absolutely. ’cause we learn things. When we do that, we get better at it. It’s like practicing a sport, it’s like practicing anything, the more you do it, the better you get at it, and you overcome some of the awkwardness, like a lot of us are worried that if I strike up this conversation with the guy who gives me my coffee at Dunkin Donuts, it’s gonna be awkward. Well, the more you do it, the less awkward it becomes, so it’s like practicing any skill, just keep trying…
Brett McKay: Were there any insights from the study that suggest how much time we should spend with family and friends?
Robert Waldinger: There’s no formula that one size doesn’t really fit all people, so what we know is that all of us are on some kind of spectrum from being really shy to being really outgoing, and there’s nothing abnormal about either end of the spectrum, it’s fine to be shy, but what that means is that if I’m a shy person, that means being around a lot of people can be exhausting and I need more alone time. If I’m an extroverted person, then I want parties with a lot… I wanna be around a lot of people, so it’s up to each of us to pay attention to ourselves and say, okay, what works for me? Is it a few close people or is it a lot of people in my life?
Brett McKay: You also found a research that participants who not only socialize with their friends and family, but also socialized with strangers, that affected their social fitness. Correct?
Robert Waldinger: Absolutely. That when we connect with strangers, so let’s say the person who delivers our mail, the cashier at the grocery store, if we connect and exchange some pleasant conversation, we get little hits of well-being, and we give other people little hits of well-being, it’s like just a recognition of, “Hey, I see you, I like saying hello to you,” and those little interactions turn out to contribute every day to our feeling better about ourselves and to our health.
Brett McKay: Okay, so social fitness, spend more time with people we care about spend more time socializing, and again, you said this with a caveat, everyone’s different, sometimes you need more of that, sometimes you need less, but then also when you are spending the time, make sure you are actually paying attention to those people. One of the interesting things about this study is that, again, it’s longitude, so you’ve seen from when these individuals were in college, from boyhood all the way into their 80s, 90s, so you’ve seen them date, get married, divorce, have kids, faced a lot of challenges in a relationship. What did you learn about what these participants did, who thrived with their relationships and in life, how do they handle those challenges that will inevitably come up in any relationship?
Robert Waldinger: Yeah, they didn’t hide from the challenges, so the temptation can be, if I’m having a disagreement with somebody, let me just sweep it under the rug, let me just turn the other way, let me just avoid that person. Well, it turns out that the people who thrive are the people who work out disagreements, that actually there are always gonna be disagreements in any relationship, no matter how good it is, and the challenge is to work out those disagreements in a way that helps everybody feel stronger and better not so that one person wins and the other loses, but that both people feel like they came to some understanding and they’re able to move ahead with the relationship, and usually what happens is when you work out disagreements… The relationships get stronger.
Brett McKay: So turn towards the adversity instead of withdrawing.
Robert Waldinger: Absolutely, absolutely.
Brett McKay: Okay, so if you’ve faced challenges in your relationship, turn towards it, do so again, I think bringing that curiosity, if you see a disagreement, figure out why the person you’re disagreeing with sees things the way they do, and try to really control and harness those emotions towards positive, proactive ends… Let’s talk about marriage. That’s a big part of life. What did you learn about marriage from studying the men in this study.
Robert Waldinger: We learned that it changes that we pick a partner and we say till death do us part or not, we don’t necessarily get married, but we have a partner, and what we don’t expect is that we and our partner are gonna change, but of course we do, we’re always changing, and so one of the things we notice is that the people who have the best and the most stable relationships are the people who accept that they change, that their partner changes and that the relationship is gonna morph and change as it goes through time, that that’s not a problem at all, that that’s to be expected. And if we give each other room to change, that’s a way of doing what we call growing together instead of growing apart. So the people who were best at learning new dance steps with their partner, if you will, were the people who had the most satisfying relationships that lasted, that met the test of time.
Brett McKay: And I imagine the people who didn’t have that flexibility usually end up in acrimony or divorce.
Robert Waldinger: Exactly, exactly. Why can’t you be the person you were 20 years ago? Well, nobody is.
Brett McKay: Yeah, anything else that you found just the day-to-day, that these individuals that have a thriving marriage, that they did to strengthen their marriage?
Robert Waldinger: Yes, they caught each other being good, we often catch each other being bad doing the wrong thing, and we call them out, but really, if we catch each other being good doing the thing we appreciate and name it, it goes such a long way to… First of all, reinforcing the behavior, getting the other person to do it again, gee, you like that? I’ll do it again, so we can help each other learn how to please each other, and so what I would say is that the people who were best at this were the people who kept appreciating their partner for the things that they genuinely valued.
Brett McKay: Well, here’s a tip from my own life, so listen to the podcast, probably you’ve heard me talk about this before we actually… We did a whole podcast about this, is this idea of a marriage meeting, a weekly marriage meeting, my wife and I have been doing it for years, and you start off the meeting with appreciation, and so you just… We each take turns just sharing how we appreciated what the other did during the Week, so it’s the mundane stuff, just, “Hey, thanks for picking up the kids,” to more meaningful things as well.
Robert Waldinger: Yeah. Fantastic, fantastic. And that’s… You start with appreciation. And actually, that’s a good way to start lots of encounters, but especially with your partner… Wow, it’s such a good thing. And then you were able to move on to talk about the things that you’d like to maybe be different or change.
Brett McKay: Yeah, yeah, so we talk about our to dos… So we talk about what stuff that we have to do to just manage the household, what needs to be fixed, cleaned, where the kids need to be, and then we talk about plan for good times. So we plan for good times individually, so if there’s something I wanted to do, I wanna go hang with my friend on Thursday night, are you available to make sure the kids… Someone’s watching the kids… Oh yeah, that’ll be great. Same thing, we plan good times as a couple or as a family.
Robert Waldinger: I love that.
Brett McKay: And then we end it with big issues, so it could be issues with the kids, concerns in the relationship. You talk about that stuff.
Robert Waldinger: Yeah, this is fantastic, because the other thing we know is that it’s easy for couples to just become a tag team raising kids, and where you do this and I’ll do that, and then we stop paying attention to the romance, we stop paying attention to the fun parts. And so what you and your wife are doing is actively remembering to plan some fun and plan… Planning fun individually and planning fun as a couple and planning fun as a family, because those fun times are the glue that holds every relationship together.
Brett McKay: We’re gonna take a quick break for words from our sponsors.
And now back to the show. Well, the other thing you found day-to-day that the participants in the study who had flourishing marriages did was just physical touch, like a frequent daily physical touch, hugs, hand-holding, etcetera, they did that from once they got married till their 80s and 90s, they didn’t stop doing that.
Robert Waldinger: Absolutely, absolutely, ’cause physical touch literally calms us down, it literally relieves stress, and it certainly gives us hits of well-being when somebody takes your hand, when somebody puts an arm around you, gives you a little peck on the cheek, it makes a big difference and we can see it, we can see in the laboratory when somebody is about to have a stressful medical test, if they can hold the hand of someone they trust, they are hugely calmer, and in fact, they feel less pain if the procedure is painful. And so we know that this stuff really works.
Brett McKay: And the other thing you found with this longitudinal study is that relationships… We mentioned that, relationships change over time, and one thing that they follow is this sort of U-shaped curve of happiness. We actually had an economist on the podcast to talk about this idea that generally people follow this U-shaped curve of happiness through their life, they… In their 20s, they’re really happy, and then as you get down to your 40s, your happiness reaches its lowest point, and then after that, it starts going up, and the same thing happens in relationships, marital satisfaction is high in the beginning, and then it sort of follows this U-shaped curve of happiness where your 40s, 50s like, Oh, this is… Our relationship is not the best, but then 60s, 70s, 80s, it’s the best it’s ever been.
Robert Waldinger: Absolutely, absolutely, and it’s such a surprise ’cause we think being old, oh, I don’t wanna do that, and that looks depressing, but older people get happier and this U-shaped curve keeps coming up in study after study. A lot of it is because mid-life is hard, mid-life is often the time when we have the most pressure, most career pressure, the most pressure to take care of kids, if we’re raising kids, often pressure to take care of aging parents or disabled relatives, and so often, we talk about the sandwich generation, the middle-aged person who’s got so many responsibilities on so many fronts, it’s easier when you’re a young adult, and it’s easier when you’re older and maybe the kids are launched, maybe you’re no longer taking care of elderly parents. So there are a lot of reasons why this dip in happiness occurs in midlife, now, it doesn’t occur for absolutely everybody, these are big averages when we look at thousands of people, but it’s pretty reliable.
Brett McKay: Let’s talk about… We’ve sort of glanced on this, but a participant’s family of origin, how did that influence what their own family was like in adulthood?
Robert Waldinger: What we’ve seen is that if you have warm relationships with your parents, you’re much more likely to have warm relationships as you get older, and we found that there was a connection even across 60 years, that people who had warmer connections with parents and childhood had warmer relationships with romantic partners in their 70s, and that kind of connection is really hard to find across so many years.
Brett McKay: Well, what about people who grew up in a home that wasn’t so loving, a broken home, did they often carry those negative familial patterns into their adult family?
Robert Waldinger: Many people do. It’s also possible to have other good relationships that help a lot, so for example, you could have a relationship with an uncle or an aunt, you could have a great relationship with an older sibling, with a coach, with a teacher, somebody who you can rely on, somebody if it’s an adult who’s just crazy about you and mentors you and takes care of you if you have that, that goes a long way toward compensating for some of the bad times we can have with parents.
Brett McKay: Well, there’s this idea from a family scholar that I’ve read, Carlfred Broderick, and he called this idea, say if you grew up in a family that was not good, it was a bad, a broken family, you don’t have to carry that on, you can become what he calls a transitional character. And it’s a person, he calls it a person who in a single generation changes the entire course of a lineage, and that can happen, and you highlight people who did that, they came from a broken home, but then through someone they met or just even just will… They change that for themselves and their family.
Robert Waldinger: Exactly, exactly, and I love that concept of being a transitional figure, where you interrupt a lineage where you don’t wanna pay something forward that was unfortunately given to you, that you wanna do it differently. And many people do that. Actually, being a parent, a lot of parents are intentional about doing it differently because there were some things in their childhoods that were hurtful, that were neglectful, and they don’t want to inflict that on their children going forward, and that can be a source of healing for the parent, it can be a hugely healing thing to be able to do for your kids, what wasn’t done for you.
Brett McKay: And it was interesting too, you also highlight people who… They try to be that transitional character in their family for their own kids, but by doing that, they actually were able to heal the rifts with their parents or siblings from their family of origin.
Robert Waldinger: They can because sometimes grandparents can learn from parents about how the parents are taking care of their kids, grandparents can say, oh wow… Actually my own father, who was a very good man, didn’t know what to do with young kids, and so he didn’t really spend much time with me and my brother when we were little, but when he saw me being a father and spending an awful lot of time, taking care of my first son when he was a baby, my dad got really curious and interested and said, “Gee, I wish I had done more of that when I was a parent of young kids.”
Brett McKay: Did the flourishing participants in the study, did they stay connected with their family of origin more than participants who did in fair as well, in life?
Robert Waldinger: It depends. There were some people who put distance between themselves and their families because the families were hurtful, because the relationships were more toxic, and those people found that they survived better and they thrived more when they put distance between themselves and their families of origin. There were other people who stayed quite close, and that was an enormous source of support as they went through all kinds of challenges as young adults and middle-aged adults… So I would say that if the families of origin were good, nurturing families, staying close was an enormous source of support.
Brett McKay: So I think the big takeaway from that aspect of the study is that if you came from a family that wasn’t great, you’re not doomed to repeat that, history is not doomed to repeat itself.
Robert Waldinger: Exactly, exactly. Childhood is not destiny.
Brett McKay: That’s… Is genetic destiny? So you’ve talked about how you brought in DNA studies, and there’s a lot of talk about how well, a lot of problems in people’s life they’re determined by genetics. You were able to see this like first-hand. What influence have you found that genetics has had in the outcomes of individuals lives?
Robert Waldinger: Actually, there’s another researcher who’s done some work on this, a psychologist named Sonja Lyubomirsky, and she’s done some estimates, like how much of our happiness is under our control, and what she finds from looking at a lot of studies is that about 50% of our well-being is genetically determined that we’re all born with a certain temperament, a certain happiness setpoint that is pretty stable throughout our lives, but then about an extra 10% is our current life circumstance, and then the remaining 40%, she estimates is under our control. So she says about 40% of our happiness, our well-being is malleable. We can do something about it. And that’s a big percentage.
Brett McKay: Well, let’s talk about friends. What role did friends play in the lives of the men in the study?
Robert Waldinger: It varied, some men turned around in mid-life and said, I don’t have any friends, and they really felt quite isolated, some of them had spouses who made their social lives for them and that worked okay. Some of our original study participants are men had very good friendships, friendships that were long-lasting, also some friendships that they made for the first time in mid-life or in late life. People who they never thought they’d become friends with, became friends when they were in their 70s and 80s. So it varied a lot. The message from all of that was that it is never too late to find friends never too late, and we have stories in our book about that life stories where people who thought that it was too late for them, they were never gonna have good friendships suddenly found their friendships late in life.
Brett McKay: Did you all find any… Was there a specific number of friends someone needed to have a flourishing life, or did it vary?
Robert Waldinger: It varies a lot, and again, it’s that continuum, some of us are shy, and it means that maybe we just need one or two really good friends in our lives, some of us are extroverted and we might want lots of friends, so it’s a very personal matter to check out for yourself. What works for me? And then to try to make that happen for yourself. What we do know is that everybody needs somebody… Everybody needs at least one solid relationship, at one point, we asked our original participants, we said, “Who could you call in the middle of the night if you were sick or scared, list everybody you could call.” Some people could list quite a number of people who they could go to, some people couldn’t list anybody. We think that each person needs at least one person in their life who is their go-to person who would have their back if they really needed help.
Brett McKay: And one thing you found is that the people who maintained or kept growing friendships throughout their life, what they did… One thing they did was really powerful was they thought about their social routines and then changed it up so that it allowed them to make more friends, so take a look at your life, like, “What am I doing that’s preventing me from making friends, and then what can I do to increase the likelihood that I’ll make a new friend?”
Robert Waldinger: Yes, and one of the things we find is that if you think about what you enjoy or what you care about, what are the things you love to do? Or what are the causes you care a lot about? Do those things with other people. So volunteer for a gardening club, or a biking group, or a bowling league, anything… Something you love to do, because one of the things we find is that if you put yourself in groups of people who share interests, first it gives you an immediate topic of conversation, something to talk about, and you go back again and again and you’re with those same people, you’re more likely to strike up conversations, to eventually have deeper conversations with a few people and eventually build some deeper relationships.
Brett McKay: And in this idea that it’s never too late for you to make new friends, you talk about… This is a great example of a guy named Andrew that was part of the study, and he was in a not great marriage, his wife was really critical of him and she was very averse to social situations, they kept to themselves. And he was miserable. He said that at age 45, he attempted suicide. And then 20 years later, at 65, he was thinking about it again. And then at 67, he retired, he was forced to retire because he couldn’t see anymore, and then he got divorced and he was even lonelier ’cause he divorced his wife. Even though the marriage wasn’t great. But he decided to do something I’m lonely, I need to make friends. And so what he did, he changed his social routine, and he joined a health club, fitness club, went through every day, started making friends. Guy is really social, and then it says a couple of years later, when they did this study on him, they asked if he ever felt lonely… Before he’d say yes often. And recently, he said, “No, I never feel… ” And this is in 2010, he says he never feels lonely and he gets people visiting him at his house, he’s made friends, so it took a while, but it is possible to change.
Robert Waldinger: Exactly, and he’s a perfect example of how change happens, even when we’re sure it’s not going to… He made an effort and he did something that he wanted to do anyway, which is he wanted to join a gym, he wanted to take care of his health, and it had this wonderful side benefit that turned out to be the main event for him.
Brett McKay: What role did work play in the happiness of the participants of the study.
Robert Waldinger: It played a big role. First on the down side, many people, when we asked them to look back on their lives and we said, what’s your biggest regret? Many of them said, I wish I hadn’t spent so much time at work. I wish I had spent more time with the people who mattered to me, but in addition, the people who were happiest at work were the people who made friends at work, who had important relationships at work. It gave them a reason to go to work every day. It gave them people to show up for, and what we find is that that’s true when they study millions of workers, that if you have a friend at work, someone you can talk to about personal matters, it makes an enormous difference in how much you like the job, whether you’re a good performer at that job and whether you’re more likely to change jobs, you’re more likely to stay put, if you have friends who you wanna show up for at work.
Brett McKay: So let me guess the big insight there is pick a job where you enjoy being around the people at work.
Robert Waldinger: Yeah.
Brett McKay: So we’ve talked a lot about what you’ve all learned from the study, we talked about how relationships are… That’s the most important thing in life. It correlates to higher health, higher income, higher happiness, but then to increase those relationships, we gotta exercise our social fitness, we do that by spending more time with people we care about or even strangers, and then really when we’re spending that time attending to them, then we talk about different ways we can exercise our social fitness within our marriage, our friends at work. Again, this study is longitudinal, so you’ve been able to see these men at different points in their life, young adulthood, midlife, elderhood, let’s say someone who’s listening to the podcast, they’re in that early part of adulthood, they’re in their 20s, maybe early 30s. What do you think is like the one thing that these individuals should focus on to really lay a foundation for a flourishing life?
Robert Waldinger: Basically focus on your relationships, and they don’t have to be a choice between relationships and work, or relationships and family. It doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game, focus on your relationships wherever you find yourself during the day, and that… And bring those skills that you just named so beautifully, those skills of curiosity and reaching out, that you can bring those wherever you are, at home, at work, in the community, but it turns out to be the best investment in your future.
Brett McKay: What about mid-life? What are the challenges that you’ve seen there, and what can individuals who are in mid-life do overcome those relationship challenges?
Robert Waldinger: Probably the biggest challenge is shutting down is being so beleaguered by all your responsibilities that you don’t take time to connect with other people, you don’t take time to care for yourself and to have fun, which is a part of self-care, so I would say make that a priority, plan that out just the way you and your wife do, plan it out every week, let other things fit in around that, make those the first things you plan and let the other things come in when there’s time for them.
Brett McKay: That’s that idea from Stephen Covey, the Big Rocks. Plan your big rocks first and then let the sand of life fill in on those rocks. Let’s say someone whose retirement, so late 60s, early 70s, what’s something that they should be turning towards when it comes to their relationships?
Robert Waldinger: The people in our study who are the happiest in retirement replaced their work relationships with new relationships in retirement. So I would say that finding that group of friends, finding those causes you love and volunteering for them, finding those clubs you wanna join, do those things, make those things happen. Be active about it, because that’s likely to build a kind of bedrock of social connection that’s gonna keep you happy when you’re no longer seeing people all day at work.
Brett McKay: I saw that in the life of my own grandfather, he passed away in 2015, he was almost 101, but he retired from the Forest Service… I forgot how old he was, it was like in the ’60s, but then he lived like another 40 years and he had a flourishing life and it was spent socializing, he was involved with the conservation groups, the Rotary Club, he traveled a lot, he did Meals on Wheels even in his, he was in his 90s, he was visiting, he’s delivering meals on wheels to other 90 year-olds who couldn’t get around, I think that did a lot for his longevity, and he had a flourishing life all the way up pretty much up to the end.
Robert Waldinger: Yeah, and that’s the recipe staying engaged in the world, it sounds like he was very engaged with all kinds of people, with all kinds of activities. It’s staying engaged, that matters hugely for your happiness and your health when you retire.
Brett McKay: Well, Robert, this has been a great conversation where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?
Robert Waldinger: Well, the book has a website, thegoodlifebook.com, and you can also go to our study website, it’s www.adultdevelopmentstudy.org, adult development study. All one word, dot-org.
Brett McKay: Fantastic. Robert Waldinger thanks for your time, it’s been a pleasure.
Robert Waldinger: Thank you, I’ve really enjoyed this conversation.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Dr. Robert Waldinger, he’s the author of the book The Good Life. It’s available on amazon.com and book stores everywhere. You can find more information about the Harvard study of adult development at adultdevelopmentstudy.org, also check at our show notes at AOM.is/happiness, where you can find links to resources where we’ve delved deeper into this topic. Well, that wraps up another edition of The AOM podcast, make sure to check out our website at artofmanliness.com, where you can find our podcast archives, and while you’re there, sign up for a newsletter at artofmanliness.com/newsletter, there’s a daily option a weekly digest as well you get our updates it’s for free, check it out. And if you’d like to enjoy ad-free episodes of the AOM podcast, you can do so on Stitcher Premium, head over to stitcherpremium.com, sign up, use code “manliness” to check out for a free month trial. Once you’re signed up, download the Stitcher app on Android iOS and you can start enjoying ad-free episodes of the AOM podcast.
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