What Makes a Good Life

Podcast Transcript:

Chester: What keeps us healthy and happy as we go through life? Today we’re going to tell you about an 80-year Harvard study that has found the answers. This is Chester Elton, and today on the Anxiety at Work podcast, we’re going to talk about this fascinating research with the director of that study which has watched a group of people from the time they were teenagers through old age. With me is my writing partner and my dear friend, Adrian Gostick.

Adrian: Well, thank you, Chester. You know we’re told to lean into our work to achieve more, but our guest today says these are most likely not the things that will make us happy in life. And you know what? He’s got the data to back it up.

Chester: Dr. Robert Waldinger is clinical professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, director of the Center for Psychodynamic Therapy and Research at Massachusetts General Hospital, and director of the Harvard study of Adult Development. He is a practicing psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, he teaches Harvard medical students and Psychiatry residents, and he is on the faculty of the Boston Psychoanalytic Institute. And oh, by the way, he’s also a Zen priest. Bob has earned his MD from Harvard Medical School. Welcome to the show, Bob; we are delighted to have you here today.

Dr. Waldinger: Well, it’s great to be here.

Adrian: We really are. We’ve been excited to chat with you for a long time now. If anybody hasn’t seen Bob’s Ted talk, do yourself a favor and check it out. As a little recap, you are now the fourth steward of the longest-running study ever on aging and happiness. So, for those of us who may not be more familiar with the study, can you help us understand the study-who was involved and, most importantly, what you have found over the years?

Dr. Waldinger: Sure. Well, the study began as two studies, and in fact, the studies didn’t know about each other. One study was a study of Harvard College undergraduates, and it was started at the University Health Service to study how young men moved from adolescence into early adulthood. And it was meant to be a study of people who are well and who are likely to do well—a study of normal young adult development. So, of course, if you want to study normal young adult development, you study all white men from Harvard, right? I mean, it is now the most politically incorrect sample you could ever have, but at that time it seemed like a good idea, and it has been a wonderful source of information about human development. It’s just that now we know that we want to study people from all kinds of backgrounds. In addition, the other study that was begun at the same time in 1938 was begun over at Harvard Law School, another part of the Harvard campus. Sheldon Gluck was a law professor, and his wife Eleanor Gluck was a social worker, and they were interested in the problem of juvenile delinquency. But particularly why some kids from really disadvantaged backgrounds were able to stay on good developmental paths. What kept them from getting into trouble? And so, they gathered boys from the most disadvantaged families in the city of Boston, known on average to five different social service agencies per family for alcoholism, mental illness, terrible health problems, severe poverty, and then these two groups of young men were brought together by my predecessor George Valiant to study as two contrasting groups. And then since then, we’ve brought in the spouses of the original men and followed these people all the way through their lives, and we’ve also studied their children, who are all baby boomers. So now we have a whole group of original men and women and their baby boomer children.

Chester: You know, to me, it’s remarkable that the study has lasted. Part where you said, you know, it was really interesting. We’d come back year after year, and I think in the tougher neighborhoods, your residents said, why are you coming back to study me? I’m not that interesting. What did the Harvard study people say?

Dr. Waldinger: Well, the Harvard men never asked that question! They, and in fairness, I mean I was joking in a way because why would a Harvard Man not think his life was interesting? But also, this was a more educated group, and so they understood the value of studying lives as they went along. Much more so than many of the inner-city men. Uh, many of whom had never completed high school. Some of whom dropped out of school in middle school. So in fairness, we’ve had to help them learn why being part of the study is such a gift to science. And tell us your big takeaway. If there’s a sound bite that we can say this was the big takeaway, and you’ve been asked this many times, what’s the big aha that you tell groups? Okay, the big aha is that good relationships keep us healthier and happier. And the big aha is the healthier part. So it stands to reason if I have good relationships, I’m probably likely to be happier, but how is it possible that good relationships keep me from getting type 2 diabetes or arthritis or actually predict that I’m gonna live longer? How could that possibly be? And that’s what we found. Also, many other studies found the same thing.

Chester: To me, it really is! The lightbulb goes off. Like you say, it should seem so obvious. That good relationships make for happier people. Happier people tend to be healthier, and yet having the research to connect those dots is really amazing. You know, I’m also fascinated you found a really strong link between marriage and overall health. You say that a good marriage can have a protective effect on mental health. Can you expound on that a little bit?

Dr. Waldinger: Yes, we were interested in studying marriage because in that generation-so, the World War II generation, if you will, almost everybody was married. And our question was, what role does marriage play in one person’s development? And so we asked people the same questions about their marriages eight different times over 50 years, and that allowed us to construct little graphs. Little trajectories of marital satisfaction through the lifespan. And so what we found was, first of all, that marriage does convey the benefits of living longer, being happier, but also that marital satisfaction changes as we go through life. So we found, for example, that we’re happiest in our relationship when we first get together. Not a surprise, right? When we’re all excited to be together with this new partner, and then marital satisfaction goes down when the first child is born, if the couple has children. And then what we found was that marital satisfaction goes back up again when the last child leaves home. And then we also found that marital satisfaction only goes down again if children come back to live at home.

Chester: I’m laughing so hard because I have four kids. They’ve all left, and almost to a person, at some point, they came back. So it’s that rotating door. I love that you’ve got the data to back that up.

Adrian: Yeah, I love the ups and downs, and I want to talk a little bit about the children of the participants because I think that’s interesting. What’s that told you as you studied the children of the original participants? If, for instance, you know, if an original participant was happy, do you have more happy kids? If they’re more successful, do they create more anxiety? Were there any links that you found that were maybe interesting?

Dr. Waldinger: We are still studying that. So we spent years collecting the data, and now we’re spending years analyzing the data. And what we’re finding is that one pattern doesn’t fit all. As you might imagine, that for some people, certainly, happier parents, happier childhoods lead to or are correlated with happier adult lives for the children. For other people, other things intervene. So I’ll give you an example. Many of the people in our second-generation sample reported that they were bullied as children. Often by other kids. Often at school. And one of the things we know is that bullying has a very powerful negative effect on children’s development. So some of these kids grew up to be fearful, more withdrawn people than they might have been despite having happy homes and very well-meaning parents. So all kinds of things happen to us in our lives that don’t just depend on our parents. That said, parents turn out to be really important.

Chester: You know, there are so many variables, aren’t there? And I know your database now you have literally hundreds of thousands of data points, and trying to see trends; certainly, you can see that. Really interesting that you say there’s always exceptions. There tend to always be exceptions depending on what happens. But you know, Adrian and I, our latest book is Anxiety at Work. So we thought it would be really interesting to ask you what have you learned about managing stress and anxiety from the study and relationships. Is there any kind of correlation?

Dr. Waldinger: Oh, huge correlation! So our question for the last ten years in our research has been, how do relationships affect your health? How could it be possible that relationships actually get into your body and change your body? How does that work? And our best hypothesis, and the best hypothesis of many researchers, it’s not just ours, is that relationships, when they’re good, are stress regulators. They are, if you will, emotion regulators. So think about having a really bad day. Something really upsetting happens to you during your day, and then you go home, and there’s someone you can talk to, someone who’s a good listener. Someone who’s sympathetic, and you can unload and talk about how bad things were. You can literally feel your body calm down. And what we believe, and there’s some good evidence for this, is that uh, the body has the fight or flight response where we get revved up in response to stress, and that’s a good thing, so that we’re prepared to cope with a stressor, cope with a threat out there. But then the body is meant to calm down afterwards. And so imagine if you’re chronically all the time in fight or flight mode. If your body never quite calms down from stressors. So we think that one of the main functions of good relationships is that they help the body come back to equilibrium after it’s been stressed. And that’s a big part of our research now.

Adrian: Bob, that’s one of the clearest definitions and explanations I think I’ve ever heard about why relationships are important. I love that idea. Hey, when people are listening to this, they’re going to be saying, I want to learn more. Where would you point them to learn more about your work?

Dr. Waldinger: Well, we’re going to have a book coming out in January, so you can order it, even now, on Amazon. You can pre-order it. And the book is titled? It’s called “The Good Life,” so if you look up “The Good Life” and Waldinger, you could order it, but that won’t be out till January. We have a website, adultdevelopmentstudy.org. How’s that for a mouthful? And we also have our foundation website, which is lifespanresearch.org.

Adrian: Now one of the things that many people don’t know about you is that you are a Zen priest. And so, this is really intriguing. How did that influence your work? And also, how has the study influenced your thinking as a Zen practitioner? Tell us a little bit about that.

Dr. Waldinger: Yeah. Well, I used to think that being a Zen priest and being a researcher, and being a psychotherapist, which I also do in my professional life. I used to think they were all in separate silos, and actually, I didn’t say much to my professional colleagues about my Zen life. And then I realized they’re all just different windows on the same human experience, and that that’s really how I’ve come to understand it. That Zen is about studying the self, uh, spending a lot of time sitting on a meditation cushion. And my research is about studying hundreds of lives, hundreds of families. And my role as a psychotherapist is to delve deeply into one person’s experience as a way to help them relieve some of the suffering that they have. And so these are different windows on the same human life.

Chester: That is fascinating. You know, I remember my father teaching me when I was very young; he said, you know, you just have one life. All these things contribute to the one life. Don’t think you have a spiritual life, a work life, and a family life. It’s all one thing. You know, what are some of the specific ways that you’ve seen in the study that participants that particularly are good? They excel at the idea of building deep and meaningful relationships. Do you have any stories to exemplify, like who’s really good at it? Yeah.

Dr. Waldinger: Yeah. Probably the clearest pattern we see is that the people who are really good at it are active. They’re proactive at taking care of relationships and building relationships. I used to think that, you know, my good friends were going to be my good friends forever, and good relationships just kind of take care of themselves. And what we see in our study participants is that there were people who had barbecues every weekend in the summer. And they invited over their work friends and their social friends, and their you know. And there were other people who spent a lot of time volunteering in their communities and made a lot of relationships by doing activities with other people that they cared about, that they were passionate about. You know, churches, mosques, synagogues, all these bowling leagues. All of them are uh, you know, avenues for uh taking care of relationships, building relationships. And so I think that the biggest takeaway is that the people who were most successful at this didn’t just leave it to chance, didn’t just let things happen; they were proactive.

Chester: You know, it’s so interesting that you say that. Because my mom used to always say, your dad is really good about making a friend; I’m really good at keeping friends. You know, there was that dynamic in their relationship that was kind of the yen and the yang. I want to ask you a question about, you know, particularly since the pandemic, so many people have felt lonely, right? And you talk about marriages. You talk about communities. You know, whether it’s your church or your club or you volunteer, whatever it might be. Have you seen, in your research, that loneliness factor really spike? And was it because we were forced to be isolated? Was that a big part of people’s unhappiness and health problems?

Dr. Waldinger: We do know that loneliness has increased tremendously during the pandemic, but it was on the rise. It’s been on the rise for half a century. Particularly in the developed world. Oh yeah. The sociologist Robert Putnam uh wrote a book that was a bestseller called “Bowling Alone,” and the title of the book refers to the phenomenon that, starting in the 1950s, our investment in community life and in social life has dramatically decreased. And it’s continued to decrease. So first, it decreased with the advent of television into everybody’s living rooms. It began to decrease further with the advent of all our wonderful screens that we’re so addicted to. That people spend less time going out, joining clubs. Going to houses of worship, uh, joining bowling leagues. And so what we find is that lowliness has been on the increase for a long time. That the pandemic made it worse, but you know, in 2018, I think it was, before the pandemic, Britain appointed a minister of loneliness because they found that it was such a social problem. And our Surgeon General, Vivek Murthy, made loneliness one of the pillars of his platform when he was Obama’s Surgeon General before Trump fired him. And now, again, he’s making social disconnection a priority to try to address because he sees it, rightly, as the source of not just unhappiness but so much physical illness and disability.

Adrian: Wow. So we usually ask people, Bob, you know, tell us about your daily practices. I want to know your practices to live what you’ve found here. How do you do this? To create deep and meaningful relationships in your life?

Dr. Waldinger: Well, first of all, I have to keep reminding myself to practice what I preach. It’s way easier to preach this stuff than to practice it, right? So, let’s just be clear about that. I don’t always do it. I don’t always get it right. But what I do. I meditate every day. My tradition has us meditating for 25 minutes, so that’s what I do. Um, I exercise every day to keep my body healthy because that’s another thing that our study found that taking care of your body really really matters for your longevity and for your disability-free life. Okay, and then I also, uh, I take care to uh make sure I reach out to friends, so I have all kinds of walks planned and lunches planned on my calendar. even during the pandemic, we eat outside if we have lunch, and we take walks a lot. But I didn’t used to do that. I used to say, well, I’ll just sit home and work on one more research paper or do some more email because it is the path of least resistance for me to sit at my computer and do that. So I have had to literally make myself plan to socialize; that’s where my wife is much better at this than I am. She more naturally says, oh, we haven’t seen so and so in a while. Let’s invite them over. I’ve had to get myself to do it as more of an effort, but it really pays off.

Chester: That is wonderful. You know, it’s so interesting, isn’t it? Anything that’s really worthwhile in your life comes with a certain discipline, you know, whether it’s meditation, your work, and now uh, relationships. So, this is always the fun part as we come to the end of our podcast with our guests. I always say, so if there are one or two things you wanted people to remember from our conversation today, what would that one or two things be?

Dr. Waldinger: Well, one quote I really like from an uh a centenarian which is, take care of your body like you’re gonna need it for a hundred years. So that’s the first thing. But then the second thing is be really intentional about taking care of your relationships. Don’t leave it to chance. Don’t leave it to the path of least resistance because the path of least resistance will lead you down a path to more isolation. Probably spending more time on your screens because the screens are designed to capture and hold our attention. So be really intentional about taking care of your social connections.

Chester: Thank you so much. This has been beyond delightful. Before we started to record, I was telling Bob that I’ve become just a total groupie of his work and his Ted talk. I’ve watched it multiple times. Sent it to everybody I know. Treat yourself! It really is insightful. It will make you laugh. It will make you smile. It will make you think, and it will make you be more intentional about taking care of your relationships. So, Bob Can’t thank you for your time today. It’s been beyond delightful.

Dr. Waldinger: My pleasure.

Author Recap
Adrian: Well, Ches, as groupies, as fans of behavioral health, this was a home run getting Dr. Bob Waldinger of Harvard Medical School on the show today talking about, again, the biggest study on the longest study ever conducted on human happiness. And wow, I mean, what were your takeaways?

Chester: Well, first off that Bob is probably the happiest guy we’ve ever met. You know, uh, he does practice what he preaches, and I just found it so interesting the way it all has come together and how it keeps morphing and how they keep looking for new ways to look at the data and generationally. Um, I didn’t know that the two studies were initially independent studies. You know, my takeaway was that they wanted two different groups, uh, and yet that wasn’t true, and how do people make it through, you know, tough times and tough neighborhoods? And how did the privileged go about doing it? How does it ripple through generations and their kids and so on? Just such great information, and then I loved your question where you said what is the one big aha? And he said the big aha was not only did it make for happier relationships, it made for healthier bodies.

Adrian: Which was so interesting, wasn’t it? Less type-two diabetes. Less Alzheimer’s. Less all these amazing correlations. So now, let’s get to some of the specifics. I think this was really powerful about managing stress, um, and how relationships affect our health. You know, when we have a good relationship, they are a regulator for us. You think about, you know, the natural gas coming into your home at high pressure. You have that regulator. Well, that’s the same thing with a good relationship. You go into your home, that person you can talk to is a regulator helps calm us down. Um, and I just thought that was a really great way of saying that takes us out of the stress that so many people live in 24:7.

Chester: Well, and you know, that thing about you’ve had a bad day. Do you have somebody to talk to? How often have we talked about, you know, whether you’re a manager in business or in relationships, that listening, just being there for someone and listening to them, how that calms everything down. How that makes relationships deeper and richer? I think we’re so used to the, you know, the hustle and bustle that we’re in, and the sound bites. And we always have to be clever and jump in. When really that quiet is so key to a great relationship.

Adrian: Well, let’s give everybody a little pull the curtains back a little in our relationship over the last 23 years now. And what we’ve done is one of us will get worked up about something. You know, especially when we used to work for a big corporation, you know what do you mean? so-and-so.. call the other one and what would the other one do? Yeah, okay, and they would listen, they would respect, they wouldn’t say no, that’s not true, they would, oh yeah, I can see, oh my gosh, and they’d become… And all of a sudden, our stress levels would come down. And we’ve played that role of regulator for each other for a long time.

Chester: For a long time! And isn’t it funny we right until just now, we didn’t really realize how important that was, and probably why we’ve stayed friends, yeah, for 23 years. I always appreciated when I’d get all worked up; you would laugh. You know, yeah, you know, we should talk this through because, you know, you’re going to get homicidal here if we don’t figure this out. But and isn’t it interesting that when we talked about the pandemic and loneliness that, he said, oh, it’s been on the rise since way before the pandemic. Yeah, that the UK even had a Minister of Loneliness. Which,

Adrian: Along with the Minister of Funny Walks, uh there, which is a completely different thing, but yeah,

Chester: If you’re a Monty Python fan, you got that. If you didn’t, you were like, what the heck is Adrian talking about? Um, and this idea of it started with TVs. Yeah, when people had a TV, and now we’ve got screens, and now fewer people are joining, you know, um, clubs and bowling teams and going to church. And you know, and we’ve seen that decline and unhappiness is on the rise,

Adrian: And don’t we just do that every night? We’ll sit around, you know, you and your significant other, you sit around, and you just scroll, and you just look at the screen, and what did he say? You can’t leave it to chance. You have to get up, get in your car or get on your bike and go see somebody. Right?

Chester: Well, you know, and this is so relevant to me. Just last night, so Heidi, you know, my beautiful wife who you know very well we’re kind of sitting around, and we’re kind of scrolling, and I said, hey um if I go for a walk, it was actually quite pleasant, and she goes, yeah, let’s do that. Well we’re gonna go for like a little 10-minute walk well it turned it a little bit about a 40-minute walk, and we both said to each other gee, I’m so glad we did this. We just got out of the house we talked about the kids. We’ve got an upcoming family reunion, and that just pleasant walk and that discipline, now I have to admit it was my Apple watch. I said hey, I need at least another 10-minute walk to close the ring, you know. And that discipline where he said, look, I meditate, I exercise, and I’m disciplined on my calendar, I’ve got walks, I’ve got breakfast, I’ve got lunches, Really an important takeaway.

Adrian: Just as much as exercise is, you know, something you book into your calendar, so are relationships. I think that was the big takeaway here. So thank you to Bob Waldinger, Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. What an amazing guest. Some great takeaways? Let’s schedule our time and not take the path of least resistance. let’s schedule to make sure we have deep and meaningful relationships like we do with our wonderful producer Brent Klein. I want to thank him for putting all this together for us. To Christy Lawrence, who helps us find and wrangle amazing guests like Bob, and to all of you who listened in and especially if you downloaded.

Chester: Yeah, download and share with your friends if there’s some ideas here that helped you deal with your anxiety or gave you some wonderful insights. Please don’t hesitate, and by the way, we’ve got a wonderful online community at TheCultureWorks. A safe place where you can talk about anxiety and mental health. I just want to give one more plug for Bob’s book here. “The Good Life.” Adrian has already pre-ordered his copy. I have to pre-order two because that’s our relationship, and that’s how that works. We love speaking to audiences in person. If you’ve enjoyed the podcast, we do it virtually. We do it live. People are coming together. We love sharing the gospel around how you create great places to work. How you create great teams. How you can become a better leader by leading with gratitude and managing anxiety in the workplace. So give us a call. We’d love to be a part of your event,

Adrian: and until next time, yeah, we wish you the best of mental health and thank you for joining us today.