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Here's the Most Important Thing You Can Do to Make Your Life More Meaningful, According to the World’s Longest Scientific Study of Happiness

Here's the Most Important Thing You Can Do to Make Your Life More Meaningful, According to the World’s Longest Scientific Study of Happiness

By Meghan Rabbitt
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What makes for a happy, fulfilling life—what many of us would call a good life?

There’s a simple answer, according to Robert Waldinger, MD and Marc Schulz, PhD, the directors of the longest scientific study of happiness ever conducted. It’s not career success or financial stability. It’s not a healthy diet or lots of vacation time, either.

It turns out the secret to “the good life” is even simpler than all of that and within reach for all of us right now: good relationships.

That’s right. The more meaningful our connections with others, the more likely we are to live happy, satisfying, and overall healthier lives.

The Sunday Paper sat down with Dr. Waldinger and Dr. Schulz to talk about their new book, The Good Life, and what all of us can do starting today to ensure our own health and happiness by focusing on our connections to others.

A Conversation with Robert Waldinger, MD, and Marc Schulz, PhD

Your new book is all about lessons from the world’s longest scientific study of happiness. What surprised you most as you looked at 84 years of research?

Dr. Waldinger: The initial goal was to study thriving. So much of research had been understandably about what goes wrong in human development. This was an attempt to ask, “What are the conditions that help people thrive as they go through life? How do people develop along healthy paths?”

Dr. Schulz: I think one of the things we found is that there’s a thirst for knowledge that comes from science. This study produced hundreds of scientific findings. But when you step back and take the big-picture view, what we found very clearly is that it’s relationships that help sustain our psychological wellbeing and our physical health. That was the signal across many of our findings.

The other thing that’s really important, which we emphasize in the book, is that no one study can tell you everything you need to know. Science builds on replication. The findings we talk about in the book are well replicated across countries, across time, and across gender.

You write about the importance of meaningful human connection—something far too many of us are missing out on these days. What’s one thing any of us can do today to feel more connected to others?

Dr. Schulz: We’re at a particular point in our history in which connections are really being challenged, and this was happening even before COVID. There are a number of factors that have made it harder for people to connect. We’ve put an emphasis on efficiency and transactions in our connections. Communities were becoming less important, and people were moving around a lot. New technologies are wonderful for maintaining connections—and they were really important during the pandemic—but they also have potential downsides. If people overly rely on virtual connections, we miss those real-time, in person connections that feel different than those other types of interactions.

When you combine those trends with the pandemic, we’re at a point where I think connections are really being challenged. You see this in the loneliness numbers we talk about in the book: 20 to 40 percent of the population reports feeling lonely, which is astronomical. We know loneliness is tied to physical health and how long you’ll live. That’s why a number of countries are thinking about this as a major public health problem.

Dr. Waldinger: A lot of what’s so important about relationships is emotional communication. It’s not just transactions, or efficiency—it’s the little hits of wellbeing we get from each other. One of the things that may be in jeopardy is the emotional part of connection that gets attenuated online.

What is “social fitness” and how does it keep our relationships in good shape?

Dr. Waldinger: Physical fitness is a practice; you don’t just do it once and you’re done. What we find is that social fitness is similar. Taking care of your relationships needs tending to daily, weekly. And it’s not hard, big actions that are needed. It can be reaching out via text or email or phone call to someone you just miss or want to connect with.

Marc and I have a weekly phone call every Friday at noon. We’ve done this for 25 years. We talk about our research—but we talk about our personal lives, too. While actively reaching out to people is so important, so is making regular interactions happen. If you can do that even with just a few people in your life, it has huge benefits over time.

Dr. Schulz: When you’re thinking about what you need to do to be more flexible, or to maintain your balance as you get older and so on, there are all sorts of assessments you can do to see where you are physically. And the same can be done with your social fitness as well. This idea of checking in on the strength of your relationships is really important.

Have either of you changed your habits or behaviors in any way after researching and writing the book?

Dr. Schulz: I certainly try to reach out to people I lost touch with. This is partly due to writing the book, and partly due to the pandemic. I thirsted for those connections, so I’ve reached out to people I haven’t been in touch with lately.

The other thing I try to do is prioritize in-person meetings at work. There’s this efficiency mode people are often in. Many of my colleagues want to meet over Zoom because it’s easy and convenient; they don’t have to be on campus; people have understandable responsibilities, like tending to young kids. Yet while the convenience of meeting online is great, there’s a cost to it. So, I’ve tried really hard to have us meet in person, and to schedule some time during those meetings when we’re just catching up.

Dr. Waldinger: For me, I found especially after my kids were launched and weren’t popping into my office saying, “Drive me here!” or “Do this for me!”—which would organize my life away from work—I found I could sit in my office all weekend and work the whole time. I’m a professor; I always have homework. So, I could just work non-stop. And what I found was that I really needed to think, “OK, who do I want to see? Who do I want to touch base with?”

This weekend I have two walks scheduled, a phone call with a Zen buddy, and a get-together on Sunday. I’ve gotten more active about being social like this because of the work Marc and I do.

You write that “the good life is right in front of you, sometimes only an arm’s length away. And it starts now.” What would you say to those who are skeptical of this, or feel they’re living the opposite of “the good life”?

Dr. Waldinger: There is a chapter in the book called “It’s never too late” and we really mean it: The data show that even if you think you’re not good at relationships, our study following all these lives shows that people find new connections—really important connections—when they don’t expect to. And even later in life.

Dr. Schulz: There’s a story we tell in the book about a man in the study who was deeply lonely and pretty miserable in his life. The thing that was most important to him was his work. Then, due to some physical challenges, he couldn’t work. He was at a real point of misery in his life. And he happened to decide to go to a gym, he went every day, and in his late 60s—this guy who reported having no friends—started seeing people every day and began to make friends and enjoy going to the gym. And he noticed he had some shared interests with some of the people. We checked back in with him in his 70s and he reported that for the first time in his adult life, he had connections with people.

The data are there. It’s never too late.

Dr. Waldinger: If someone says, “I’m not good with people,” or “I don’t know how to do it”: Just think about what you love to do and find a possibility of doing that alongside other people who also care about that same thing. It could be a gardening club. A bowling league. Working to prevent climate change. It could be anything. Just something you care about, and that you enjoy, that you can do with others. If you start with a shared interest, that’s a natural place to start conversations—and regular contact can come from that. It’s not that you have to be the most popular person at a cocktail party. Just find something you care about.

If there’s one thing you hope readers will take away from your book and this research on happiness, what is it?

Dr. Waldinger: That putting relationships front and center is really worth it. It’s one of the very best investments of time and energy that we can make.

Dr. Schulz: And it’s there now. It doesn’t require earning more money, achieving more, getting that promotion, finding the perfect person to be with for the rest of your life. It’s something you can do right now. Everyone can do it.

Dr. Robert Waldinger is a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development at Massachusetts General Hospital, and cofounder of the Lifespan Research Foundation. Dr. Waldinger received his AB from Harvard College and his MD from Harvard Medical School. He is a practicing psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, and he directs a psychotherapy teaching program for Harvard psychiatry residents. He is also a Zen master (Roshi) and teaches meditation in New England and around the world.

Dr. Marc Schulz is the associate director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development and the Sue Kardas PhD 1971 Chair in Psychology at Bryn Mawr College. He also directs the Data Science Program and previously chaired the psychology department and Clinical Developmental Psychology PhD program at Bryn Mawr. Dr. Schulz received his BA from Amherst College and his PhD in clinical psychology from the University of California at Berkeley. He is a practicing therapist with postdoctoral training in health and clinical psychology at Harvard Medical School.


Question from the Editor: What are some of the ways you aim to strengthen your relationships with loved ones? What are some of the things you might do after reading this article to make new connections?

Meghan Rabbitt

Meghan Rabbitt is a Senior Editor at The Sunday Paper. Learn more at: https://www.meghanrabbitt.com/

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