Harvard Professor Robert Waldinger​ - A 75-y​ear study on happiness

Harvard professor Robert Waldinger is the director of a 75-year study following the lives of 724 men. It is the longest happiness study ever conducted. 

In a new TED talk, Waldinger revealed the three main findings of the study and they weren’t being able to buy the world’s most expensive wine, becoming famous or being cradled by your masseuse. 

While there is room to enjoy other ‘stuff ’, the three things that determined whether the men were happy in their old age were all to do with relationships.

Top three findings from Professor Robert Waldinger's research

1. The first lesson was that social connections make us, and that loneliness breaks us. ‘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 than people who are less well connected,’ Waldinger said. ‘And the experience of loneliness turns out to be toxic.’

2. The second big lesson that we learned is that it’s not just the number of friends you have, and it’s not whether or not you’re in a committed relationship, but it’s the quality of your close relationships that matters,’ he explains. ‘It turns out that living in the midst of conflict is really bad for our health. High-conflict marriages, for example, without much affection, 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.’

3. 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,’ Waldinger says. ‘It turns out relationships to another person in your 80s is protective, 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.‘And the people in relationships where they feel they really can’t count on the other one, those are the people who experience earlier memory decline. And those good relationships, they don’t have to be smooth all the time. 

Some of our octogenarian couples could bicker with each other day in and day out, but as long as they felt that they could really count on the other when the going got tough, those arguments didn’t take a toll on their memories.’

 Waldinger’s suggestion, if we want a good life and a happy life, is to start leaning into our relationships. 

‘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,’ he said. ‘But over and over, over 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.’ 

(This content in this article was written by Professor Robert Waldinger and used in The Kelly+Partners Post Issue 1).