How to have a good life, based on the world's longest study of happiness

How to have a good life, based on the world's longest study of happiness

In 1938, Harvard began an in-depth study of the secrets to happiness. It's still going, and in today's podcast episode, the study's director, Bob Waldinger, tells Leaps.org about the keys to a satisfying life, based on 85 years of research.

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What makes for a good life? Such a simple question, yet we don't have great answers. Most of us try to figure it out as we go along, and many end up feeling like they never got to the bottom of it.

Shouldn't something so important be approached with more scientific rigor? In 1938, Harvard researchers began a study to fill this gap. Since then, they’ve followed hundreds of people over the course of their lives, hoping to identify which factors are key to long-term satisfaction.

Eighty-five years later, the Harvard Study of Adult Development is still going. And today, its directors, the psychiatrists Bob Waldinger and Marc Shulz, have published a book that pulls together the study’s most important findings. It’s called The Good Life: Lessons from the World’s Longest Scientific Study of Happiness.

In this podcast episode, I talked with Dr. Waldinger about life lessons that we can mine from the Harvard study and his new book.


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More background on the study

Back in the 1930s, the research began with 724 people. Some were first-year Harvard students paying full tuition, others were freshmen who needed financial help, and the rest were 14-year-old boys from inner city Boston – white males only. Fortunately, the study team realized the error of their ways and expanded their sample to include the wives and daughters of the first participants. And Waldinger’s book focuses on the Harvard study findings that can be corroborated by evidence from additional research on the lives of people of different races and other minorities.

The study now includes over 1,300 relatives of the original participants, spanning three generations. Every two years, the participants have sent the researchers a filled-out questionnaire, reporting how their lives are going. At five-year intervals, the research team takes a peek their health records and, every 15 years, the psychologists meet their subjects in-person to check out their appearance and behavior.

But they don’t stop there. No, the researchers factor in multiple blood samples, DNA, images from body scans, and even the donated brains of 25 participants.

Robert Waldinger, director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development.

Katherine Taylor

Dr. Waldinger is Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, in addition to being Director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development. He got his M.D. from Harvard Medical School and has published numerous scientific papers he’s a practicing psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, he teaches Harvard medical students, and since that is clearly not enough to keep him busy, he’s also a Zen priest.

His book is a must-read if you’re looking for scientific evidence on how to design your life for more satisfaction so someday in the future you can look back on it without regret, and this episode was an amazing conversation in which Dr. Waldinger breaks down many of the cliches about the good life, making his advice real and tangible. We also get into what he calls “side-by-side” relationships, personality traits for the good life, and the downsides of being too strict about work-life balance.

Show links

- Bob Waldinger
- Waldinger's book, The Good Life: Lessons from the World's Longest Scientific Study of Happiness
- The Harvard Study of Adult Development
- Waldinger's Ted Talk
- Gallup report finding that people with good friends at work have higher engagement with their jobs
- The link between relationships and well-being
- Those with social connections live longer

Matt Fuchs
Matt Fuchs is the host of the Making Sense of Science podcast and served previously as the editor-in-chief of Leaps.org. He writes as a contributor to the Washington Post, and his articles have also appeared in the New York Times, WIRED, Nautilus Magazine, Fortune Magazine and TIME Magazine. Follow him @fuchswriter.
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