Article Video What makes a good life? Lessons from the longest study on happiness

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

This is a summary of the 'TED Talk' What makes a good life? Lessons from the longest study on happiness by Robert Waldinger
The original TED talk can be found here: What makes a good life? Lessons from the longest study on happiness | Robert Waldinger.

Please Note: The material on this site, and in the embed video, has been summarised for educational purposes only. All rights to this content belong to 'TED' and their respective parties.

What keeps us healthy and happy for the rest of our life? It’s the age old question that has haunted philosophers, kings, queens, aristocrats and peasants alike throughout history and is as old as the human condition itself. We all seem to have answers, and I ask you to think, if you were to invest now in your future self, where would you put your time and energy? A recent survey looking at happiness asked millennials what their most important life goals were, and one of the most popular answers was “to get rich”, followed by 50% responding “to become famous”.

We’re constantly told to work harder, participate in the meritocracy of life, achieve to get a job to put food on the table and raise a family. These are things that society implicitly dictates to us about how we should live our lives. And yet, it’s almost impossible to answer the question of happiness because these are questions which can only be answered with the power of years of continuous analysis on a scale almost incomprehensible to most researchers. Most of what we do know about human life we know from asking people to remember the past. And as we know, hindsight and retrospective thought is anything but 20/20. We forget vast amounts of what happens to us, and sometimes memory is downright creative. But what if we could watch entire lives as they unfold through time? What if we could study someone to assess what really makes someone happy in life? What if we could somehow intimately record the progression of someone’s life, in excruciating detail, constantly assessing the decisions they made so that we can begin to answer this ever elusive question?

The Harvard Study of Adult Development
We did just that with the Harvard Study of Adult Development, and it may be the longest study of adult study that’s ever been done in the world. For 75 years, we’ve tracked the lives of 724 men, year after year asking about their work, their home life, their health, not knowing how their lives were going to turn out. Studies like this are exceedingly rare, and historically similar projects have collapsed within a decade in the past for a variety of reasons; because study participants drop out or funding dries up or researchers get distracted, eventually die and there’s no-one to carry home.

But through a combination of luck, this study has survived. About 60 of 724 men are still alive, still participating in this study and most of them are in their 90s. We are now also beginning to study the more than 2000 children of these men. I am the 4th director of this study. Since 1938 we’ve tracked the lives of two groups of men. The first group started in the study when they were sophomores at Harvard college. They all finished college during WW2 before serving in the war. The second group are a group of boys taken from Boston’s poorest neighbourhoods, specifically chosen because they were from some of the most troubled and disadvantaged communities of 1930s Boston. When they entered the study, all of these teenagers were interviewed, given medical exams and were thoroughly interviewed. They all grew up into adults to become various different people with very different lives. Some become doctors, some became teachers, others developed alcoholism, a few developed schizophrenia, one became a president, some climbed their way up the social ladder and some went the other way.

The founders of this study would never have predicted I would be 75 years later telling you all that the study still continues. Every 2 years, our researchers continue to send our more questions hoping for more answers to continue this study. Many of the inner city Boston men ask “why do you want to study me – my life is just not that interesting.” Interestingly, the Harvard men never asked that question…

To get the clearest picture of their lives, we don’t just send them a questionnaire. We interview them at home, review their medical records, scan their brains, talk to their children, video tape them talking to their partners about their deepest concerns. We analyse everything about them.

What Have We Learned?
With so much data, what can this all tell us? Well, the lessons aren’t about wealth or working harder. The clearest message over this 75 year study can be boiled down to this simple premise; that good relationships keep us happier and healthier.

We’ve learned three big things about relationships; the first being that social connection is so important for us, and that loneliness kills. It turns out that those that are more socially connected to friends, family and community are happier, physically and emotionally, and live longer than those that are lonely. Loneliness is toxic and isolating and we found that lonely people are less happy, their brain functioning declines earlier, and they live shorter lives. The sad fact is that at any time 1 in 5 Americans will report that they are lonely.

We know you can be lonely anywhere… whether in a crowd or in a marriage. So the second big message we learnt is that it’s not how many friends you have or whether you’re in a committed relationship. It actually the quality of those relationships. Conflict erodes away out our health, and can be permanently detrimental to us. Living in good warm relationships is protective. Once we followed these men who were in their 80s, we wanted to process the data we had collected by looking at what they did in their middle age that was predictive of their happiness later in life. When we looked at all the data we had, we found that the greatest predictor of health was not cholesterol level, but actually how satisfied they were with relationships. The people who were the most satisfied with their relationships at age 50 were the healthiest and happiest later in life. What's more, good close relationships provide a buffer from the unpleasantness of life’s misfortunes. We found that those in healthy relationships were unnerved by physical pain compared to those who were lonely or in unhappy relationships. Their moods remain unchanged even in times of great stress.

The third big lesson is that good relationships don’t just protect our bodies, but they protect our brains too. It turns out that being in a securely attached relationships in your 80s delays and even in some cases prevents cognitive decline. Those in toxic relationships experienced earlier deficits in memory and thinking, and were more likely to die earlier than those who were not.

These relationships don’t need to be smooth all the time to be happy either - that would go against the nature of relationships itself. All that was needed was when the goings got tough, there was someone there to help you get through the rough patch.

This message that good close relationships are good for our wellbeing is wisdom as old as the hills. And yet, why do we ignore it? Because we all want a miracle pill to avoid the unnecessary difficulties of dealing with messy relationships and tending to the annoyance of family problems. It’s lifelong and never ends. The people in our 75 year old study who were happiest were the people who actively replaced work mates with new retiree mates.

The people who fared the best were people who leaned into creating new relationships throughout their life. Replace screen time with people time, liven up a stale relationships. Go on long walks or date nights. Those long family feuds are miniscule annoyances in comparison to the huge benefits of relationships.

I would like to close with a quote from Mark Twain. More than a century ago, he wrote this;
"There isn't time - so brief is life - for bickerings, apologies, heartburnings, callings to account. there is only time for loving - & but an instant, so to speak, for that."