World’s Longest Study Of Adult Development Offers Good Advice for Happy Living

McKinsey Consultancy Global Publishing’s Molly Liebergall recently chatted with Dr. Robert Waldinger, director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, about his new book The Good Life: Lessons From the World’s Longest Scientific Study of Happiness (Simon & Schuster, January 2023), cowritten by Marc Schulz. After tracking thousands of people over the course of 85 years, the Harvard study has found the factor that correlates with good living: good relationships. Waldinger, the study’s current director, shares what the happiest (and unhappiest) participants had to say about regret and fulfillment and how to put their lessons into practice. An edited version of the conversation follows.

What have the study’s happiest participants all had in common?

What is it that we found that really contributes to well-being? There were two big items over 85 years: one is taking care of our health. The part that surprised us was that the people who were happiest, who stayed healthiest as they grew old, and who lived the longest were the people who had the warmest connections with other people. In fact, good relationships were the strongest predictor of who was going to be happy and healthy as they grew old.

We didn’t believe our own data at first. It stands to reason that you’d be happier if you had good relationships—those two things go together—but how could good relationships predict that you’d be less likely to get coronary artery disease or type 2 diabetes or arthritis?

Many other studies began to find the same thing, and now, we’ve spent the past ten years in our lab unpacking this and trying to figure out how exactly this works. How do relationships get into our bodies and actually change our physiology?”

Can you get the same happiness from a meaningful career as from a meaningful relationship?

You can’t. It’s different. There is a lot to be said for achievement if what you’re doing is meaningful to you. What we find is that the badges of achievement don’t make people happy. We had people who were CEOs, who made lots of money, or who became famous. Those things did not relate to happiness.

But, to the extent that achieving things that are important to you is fulfilling, that does make a difference in well-being. What we found is that the people who were the happiest were not isolated. They were not workaholics who didn’t pay any attention to their relationships. Those people were some of the saddest folks in our study and were filled with regret when they were in their 80s and we asked them to look back on their lives.

If money can’t buy happiness, then why do those with higher incomes tend to live longer?

Our Harvard sample lived on average ten years longer than the inner-city sample. But 25 of the 456 inner-city kids grew up, went to college, and graduated from college, which was really extraordinary. Those 25 lived just as long, on average, as the Harvard College sample, and it wasn’t because of the college diploma; we’re virtually certain of that.

What we think was going on is that the Harvard graduates, because of their education, read more and were more in touch with cultural developments. We know that in the ’60s—and particularly in the ’70s and ’80s—much more information began to come out about the hazards of smoking, the hazards of alcohol and drug abuse, the hazards of obesity, and the importance of regular exercise.

All of that began to come out, and we believe that more educated people got those messages and put those messages into practice sooner. That’s one of the reasons why we think privilege, and particularly education, conferred some longevity benefit.

Why is loneliness a ‘major public health challenge,’ and how was this affected by the COVID-19 pandemic?

The pandemic didn’t create this crisis. Loneliness increased during the pandemic, to be sure, but before COVID, about one in three people around the globe said that they are lonely, chronically lonely. This increasing sense of disconnection in our lives has been going on for decades now. What we know is that loneliness is a stressor.

The way we think that relationships protect our health is by helping us manage stress. Stress happens all day long. Something upsetting happens to me during my day, and I can feel myself rev up: my heart rate increases, my blood pressure probably goes up, I start ruminating about it, and the body goes into fight-or-flight mode, which it’s meant to do because we want the body to be able to meet challenges.

But when the stressor is removed, we want the body to return to equilibrium—to baseline. What we believe is that if I have something upsetting happen, and I have someone to talk to at home or call on the phone, I can literally feel my body calm down.

The thinking about loneliness and social isolation is that if you don’t have people to help you weather the inevitable stresses that come along, the body stays in a low-level fight-or-flight mode, with higher levels of circulating stress hormones and higher levels of inflammation, and we know that those things gradually wear away many different body systems.

What can people do to run their own ‘mini-Harvard study’ on themselves?

The first thing to do is to take stock of where you are in your social world: What do you have already, and what are you getting from different relationships? We get different things from different relationships. That’s to be expected. Some relationships give us fun. Some relationships include confidants. Some relationships include my neighbor, who loans me tools all the time.

So, the first thing is to think about your relationship world, and think, “What am I getting? What do I have enough of? What would I like more of? And is there a way to strengthen some relationships I already have, or is there a way to make some new connections?”

In terms of strengthening connections, you could do this right now. You could think of somebody who you haven’t seen in a while, somebody who you really enjoy but who you don’t stay in touch with as much as you want to.

Take out your phone, send them a text or an email, and say, “I was thinking of you, just wanted to say hello.” It’ll take you 15 seconds, and if you do that, you will be amazed at what comes back. Not every time, but if you did one of those every day, you would get lots and lots of positive response, including requests to have coffee or dinner, and people beginning to reinvigorate their connections with you—but it takes activity.

We talk about this in the book, this idea of social fitness. We mean it to be analogous to physical fitness. Physical fitness is an ongoing practice: I don’t go to the gym today and then come home and say, “Good. I’m done. I don’t ever have to do that again.” The same is true with relationships.

What we see when we follow these lives over decades is that perfectly good friendships wither away from neglect. What we ask people to think about is how to be active, even in small ways every day or week, to nurture those relationships and keep them alive.

What if you want to make new relationships? The research shows us that when we do something we enjoy or something we care about alongside other people, we’re likely to strike up conversations. If we see those people again, we’re likely to strike up deeper conversations. From there, relationships can develop.

It could be anything. It could be a bowling league. It could be a knitting club. It could be volunteering for a political campaign or working to prevent climate change. It could be anything. If you’re doing something you care about or you enjoy and you’re with people who enjoy something similar, that’s a natural place to start conversations.

The other thing people find is that if you feel like you don’t have anybody in your life, think about ways to be of service. That could be so many different things. It could be volunteering at a food bank. It could be teaching people English as a second language. It could be volunteering to read to small kids or tutor kids in reading.

It could be so many things where you have skills, and if you use those skills it’s very gratifying. It makes other people grateful to you for your service. That’s another way to think about starting down a path where you may connect more with others.

How did you manage the pressure of taking over as director of this study?

My predecessor, George Vaillant, was my teacher when I was in medical school. And he lectured to my medical-school class about this study when the original subjects were in midlife, and I thought this was the coolest thing imaginable. I did not dream that I would one day be directing this study.

As I got into my career as a psychiatrist and learned research methods, George took me out to lunch one day and said, “How would you like to inherit the study?” I nearly dropped my fork. It took some time to say, “OK. I’d like to try to do this.”

It’s a great, big unwieldy data set. It required learning all kinds of complicated techniques for taking qualitative data and quantitative data and putting it into numbers that could be crunched and mined for insights into human thriving, so there was pressure.

I think the other pressure is that this is a historic study. It’ll never be done again. It’s highly idiosyncratic that it lasted for 85 years, so I feel a responsibility to science and to the history of this kind of work to be a good steward.

Which of the study’s findings have most surprised you or resonated with you?

There were two things. One is—and I’m going to state the obvious, but sometimes it needs to be stated—that nobody is happy all the time. No life is free of difficulty and challenge.

The reason I say that is that, particularly with social media, where we show each other these curated lives that are certainly not the whole truth of any life, it’s easy to watch these Instagram feeds, these curated lives, and say, “Well, everybody else seems to have life figured out, and I’m the only one who doesn’t. If I’m not happy all the time, then I’m not doing the right things.”

What we find from studying thousands of lives—and we tell these stories in the book—is that no life is without twists and turns and challenges. That’s not the truth of life for anybody. The other thing I would say is that it’s never too late for these things to happen for you.

I’ve heard people in their 20s and certainly older, say, “It’s too late for me. I’m not good at relationships. It’s never going to happen for me. I give up.” We had people in our study who gave up, and then, when they least expected it, new stuff happened.

One man had a lonely life and a miserable marriage. When he retired, he joined a gym and found a group of the closest friends he’d ever had in his life. People find love in their 70s and 80s, when they don’t expect to. I want to leave people with the fact that, at least from our data, if you think you know it’s too late for you, think again: you don’t know.

Robert Waldinger is a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and is the fourth director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development. Molly Liebergall is an editor at McKinsey Global Publishing and is based in McKinsey’s New York office.