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From Harvard, the secret to improving happiness

Gina London



Dr Robert Waldinger

Dr Robert Waldinger

Dr Robert Waldinger

Welcome to the first Sunday in April and to a month dedicated to the power of TED talks here at The Communicator column. TED talks, as a quick reminder, are global events showcasing ideas worth sharing. Over the next four weeks, I look forward to introducing you to four remarkable people and the career-enriching and life-improving topic they shared on that red circle of carpet placed iconically on a TED talk stage.

My first introduction is of Dr Robert Waldinger. He is a clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and also notably directs the Harvard Study of Adult Development, one of the longest-running studies on happiness.

Bob opened his 2015 TEDx talk (to date with a whopping 41 million views), with this thoughtful question: “If you were going to invest now in your future best self, where would you put your time and energy?”

You might think acquiring money, prestige or fame would be the obvious steps toward achieving a fulfilled and happy life. But, “the secret in plain sight” as Bob describes it, is evidenced through the study’s nearly 80 years of wide-ranging data.

In 1938, 268 Harvard sophomores, who notably included future US President John F Kennedy, were selected. Another cohort, of 456 disadvantaged young men from Boston’s inner-city neighbourhoods, was also chosen to be studied in tandem.

Scientists conducted extensive in-person interviews with both groups of men through questionnaires and in-person interviews. (Yes, all the participants were men. Women weren’t allowed in Harvard when the study began.) Interestingly, the study first focused on “biological determinism”, a prominent theory of the time, with researchers examining participants’ physical and intellectual factors, including skull size and handwriting styles, as possible indicators of happiness.

The study evolved to include more updated means of research like DNA testing and MRI scanners. It has also expanded to include family members and subsequent generations as “only 10 of the original Harvard men are still alive. They’re all in their late 90s or just over 100. And about 40 of the original inner-city men are still alive, all in their 90s”, Bob explained. Incidentally, before you imagine that Bob discovered the secret to ever-lasting life alongside the key to happiness, he is the programme’s fourth director, taking over the study in 2004.

“My predecessor (psychiatrist George Vaillant) took me out to lunch one day and said, ‘How would you like to inherit the Study of Adult Development?’ I almost dropped my fork.” But Bob accepted and he surmised the reason he was chosen was because he, like George before him, is a clinician as well as a researcher.

“This is a study of human life so the experience of studying lives that clinical people do every day is important.  Rather than simply being a researcher trained in multiple choice questions, I understood how to gather more qualitative information, like sitting down with someone for four hours and interviewing them about their life,” Bob said. Of course, I love a good interview myself. So, here are my questions and Bob’s answers and the secrets to increasing your happiness.


GINA: Is happiness a choice or is it how we’re wired?

BOB: “Both. Some of it is how we’re wired. We all have a kind of happiness set-point. But we can change. We can make ourselves happier. It’s not too late for anybody. In our study, some people would think, ‘Oh, it’s never going to get better for me’. Then it gets better. Often it gets better because some relationship changes. One man was so isolated and then when he retired, he decided to join a health club and he started going every day and he started saying hello to a few people and it grew and his whole social network was at that health club. And then they met outside and his life changed.”


GINA: Got you. So, we have to make an effort. For instance, he had to say, ‘Hello’.

BOB: “Yes, That’s the thing that is most useful for your readers. We have come to think about taking care of our relationships like we take care of our bodies. It’s an ongoing practice. Even our closest ones, if we put them on automatic pilot, even if there’s nothing wrong, they will get stale and wither. Same with our friendships, our work relationships, even smaller relationships are important, like saying, ‘hello’ to our postal worker. Social fitness, like physical fitness is something that will make our lives better.” 


GINA: Is there a different approach for someone who identifies as introverted?

BOB: If you’re the person who needs just one or two close relationships, that’s OK. Just tend to those. Don’t do what is draining and depleting. It’s not unhealthy to live with fewer relationships.


GINA: What is something you do differently as a result of the study?

BOB: I’m more conscious now about who do I want to see, who do I need to see. I actively reach out. That’s a difference for me from before the study. I also try to really listen when someone, like my wife, is speaking to me.


For more on the matter, you can pre-order Bob’s upcoming new book, The Good Life written with his Harvard research colleague Dr Marc Schulz. The book is set to be released in January 2023 from Penguin Books.

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