In Sight

What Makes a Good Life?

Lessons gleaned from the longest study on happiness.

Life lessons—Robert Waldinger speaks about Harvard University's 75-year study of adult life and happiness. Photo: TED.com


by Robert Waldinger

What keeps us healthy and happy as we go through life? There was a recent survey of millennials asking them what their most important life goals were, and over 80 percent said that a major life goal for them was to get rich.

We’re constantly told to lean in to work, to push harder and achieve more. We’re given the impression that these are the things that we need to go after in order to have a good life. Pictures of entire lives, of the choices that people make and how those choices work out for them, those pictures are almost impossible to get.

But what if we could watch entire lives as they were unfolding through time? What if we could study people from the time that they were teenagers all the way into old age to see what really keeps people happy and healthy?

We did that. The Harvard Study of Adult Development may be the longest study of adult life that’s ever been done. For 75 years, we’ve tracked the lives of 724 men, year after year. About 60 of our original 724 men are still alive, still participating in the study, most of them in their 90s. And I’m the fourth director of the 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. They all finished college during World War II, and then most went off to serve in the war. Second was a group of boys from some of the most troubled and disadvantaged families in the Boston of the 1930s.

These teenagers grew up into adults who entered all walks of life. They became factory workers and lawyers and bricklayers and doctors—one, President of the United States.

The Harvard Study of Adult Development may be the longest study of adult life that’s ever been done. 

To get the clearest picture of these lives, we don’t just send them questionnaires. We interview them in their living rooms. We get their medical records from their doctors. We draw their blood, we scan their brains, we talk to their children. We videotape them talking with their wives about their deepest concerns. And when, about a decade ago, we finally asked the wives if they would join us as members of the study, many of the women said, “You know, it’s about time.”

So what have we learned? Well, the lessons aren’t about wealth or fame or working harder and harder. The clearest message that we get from this 75-year study is this: Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period.

We’ve learned three big lessons about relationships. The first is that social connections are really good for us, and that loneliness kills. It turns out that people who are more socially connected to family, to friends, to community, are happier, they’re physically healthier, and they live longer. And the experience of loneliness turns out to be toxic. People who are more isolated find that they are less happy, their health declines earlier in midlife, their brain functioning declines sooner, and they live shorter lives than people who are not lonely.

Three Lessons

Keys from a 75-year study on
adult life and happiness:

1. Social connections are good for us, while loneliness is toxic.
2. The quality, not number, of close relationships is what matters.
3. Those with dependable relationships stay sharper longer.

And we know that you can be lonely in a crowd and you can be lonely in a marriage, so the second big lesson that we learned is that it’s not just the number of friends you have, but it’s the quality of your close relationships that matters. It turns out that living in the midst of conflict is really bad for our health. High-conflict marriages, for example, turn out to be very bad for our health, perhaps worse than getting divorced. And living in the midst of good, warm relationships is protective.

The people who were the most satisfied in their relationships at age 50 were the healthiest at age 80. And good, close relationships seem to buffer us from some of the slings and arrows of getting old. Our most happily partnered men and women reported, in their 80s, that on the days when they had more physical pain, their mood stayed just as happy. But for the people who were in unhappy relationships, on the days when they reported more physical pain, it was magnified by more emotional pain.

And the third big lesson that we learned about relationships and our health is that good relationships don’t just protect our bodies, they protect our brains. It turns out that the people who are in relationships where they really feel they can count on the other person in times of need, those people’s memories stay sharper longer.

So this message—that good, close relationships are good for our health and well-being—this is wisdom that’s as old as the hills. Why is this so hard to get and so easy to ignore? Well, we’re human. Relationships are messy and they’re complicated, and the hard work of tending to family and friends, it’s not sexy or glamorous. Just like the millennials in that recent survey, many of our men when they were starting out as young adults really believed that fame and wealth and high achievement were what they needed to go after to have a good life. But over and over, across these 75 years, our study has shown that the people who fared the best were the people who leaned in to relationships, with family, with friends, with community.

I’d like to close with a quote from Mark Twain. More than a century ago, he was looking back on his life, and he wrote this: “There isn’t time, so brief is life, for bickerings, apologies, heartburnings, callings to account. There is only time for loving, and but an instant, so to speak, for that.”

An unedited version of Mr. Waldinger’s speech can be found on www.TED.com.