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 about the keys to a satisfying life, based on 85 years of research.

Adobe Stock

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.

Listen on Apple | Listen on Spotify | Listen on Stitcher | Listen on Amazon | Listen on Google

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 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.
When doctors couldn’t stop her daughter’s seizures, this mom earned a PhD and found a treatment herself.

Savannah Salazar (left) and her mother, Tracy Dixon-Salazaar, who earned a PhD in neurobiology in the quest for a treatment of her daughter's seizure disorder.

LGS Foundation

Twenty-eight years ago, Tracy Dixon-Salazaar woke to the sound of her daughter, two-year-old Savannah, in the midst of a medical emergency.

“I entered [Savannah’s room] to see her tiny little body jerking about violently in her bed,” Tracy said in an interview. “I thought she was choking.” When she and her husband frantically called 911, the paramedic told them it was likely that Savannah had had a seizure—a term neither Tracy nor her husband had ever heard before.

Keep ReadingKeep Reading
Sarah Watts

Sarah Watts is a health and science writer based in Chicago.

A robot cafe in Tokyo is making work possible for people with disabilities.

A robot server, controlled remotely by a disabled worker, delivers drinks to patrons at the DAWN cafe in Tokyo.

Photo courtesy of

A sleek, four-foot tall white robot glides across a cafe storefront in Tokyo’s Nihonbashi district, holding a two-tiered serving tray full of tea sandwiches and pastries. The cafe’s patrons smile and say thanks as they take the tray—but it’s not the robot they’re thanking. Instead, the patrons are talking to the person controlling the robot—a restaurant employee who operates the avatar from the comfort of their home.

Keep ReadingKeep Reading
Sarah Watts

Sarah Watts is a health and science writer based in Chicago.