My guest today is Harvard Professor, psychiatrist, zen priest and director of Harvard’s Study of Adult Development (or ‘The Happiness Study’), one of the longest-running studies of adult life conducted today. Happiness is something we’re all chasing yet wonder if we’re ever achieving. Robert’s light-hearted, thoughtful yet passionate approach to the study of happiness reveals some hidden truths that can help us along the life-long journey to cultivating and maintaining happiness. Robert has a new book out called ‘The Good Life.’ The answers may be simpler and clearer than we realize. It’s always nice to get gentle reminders to keep us on course. Remember, relationships matter, your instincts guide you, and your passions ignite you. Take the time to adopt one or two of these practices in your daily life and see where it can lead you. Enjoy. “The Good Life” – What makes for a happy life, a fulfilling life? A good life? According to the directors of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, the longest scientific study of happiness ever conducted, the answer to these questions may be closer than you realize.”
Listen to the episode here:
- The Longest Study [00:04:59]
- How to be Happy: Aging and Relationships [00:08:44]
- A Well-Lived Life [00:17:10]
- An Advice for Young Adults [00:20:34]
- “Quick Fix” [00:24:24]
- Overcoming the Past [00:26:58]
- Parenting: Worrying Too Much [00:31:50]
- Online and Disconnection [00:33:48]
- The Changes in the Study [00:38:06]
- Defining and Measuring Happiness [00:38:57]
- Barriers and Obstacles to Living a Good Life [00:44:08]
- Robert’s Biggest Takeaway [00:49:02]
- Connection in the Workplace [00:51:41]
- Robert’s Fuse [00:52:51]
- Giving Attention to Relationships [00:54:38]
The Secret to Happiness | With Harvard Professor Robert Waldinger, Director of The Study of Happiness
“If we think about this process of othering, this tribalism that we’re also into now, those are the bad people over there. It feels satisfying to do that at the moment and then we end up constructing a world where people are hating each other and are suspicious of each other. This quick fix of what feels better, “I’m one of the good guys and you’re the bad guys,” the quick fix ends up being long-term a source of tremendous unhappiness.”
“Partly, what we do as parents is worry about stupid stuff. We worry about the stuff that turns out not to be important. Worrying about whether our kids are learning kindness, whether they’re learning emotional intelligence about how to work with a conflict with another kid, and how to manage difficulties in relationships, those are important. Whether they use the right fork for the salad, not so much.
Yes, some of those things can be helpful as you get through the world but emotional intelligence, these relationship skills, we know from research, are important. There have been studies that suggest that success in the working world is predicted much less by your IQ, by your intelligence, than it is by your emotional intelligence or by your relationship skills. What we can worry about as parents is, “Are my kids learning to get along with other people? Are they learning to be interested in other people to be curious?”
My guest is Robert Waldinger. Robert has a new book out that he’s co-authored with Marc Schulz called The Good Life: Create A More Meaningful and Satisfying Life. Bob is also the fourth director of the 84-year Harvard Study and I’m sure you’re familiar with it. It started with 724 men over 84 years ago, 268 men were sophomores at Harvard and 456 were teenagers from the inner city of Boston. There are about 40 people left in the study and they do extensive brain scans and blood draws and they talk to their wives and their children. It’s all about the sense of satisfaction in life.
Happy is a moving target. Nobody feels happy all the time but the idea of meaning and satisfaction has an everlasting impact on us. Of course, it’s about relationships, it’s about feeling genuinely connected with somebody, “This person has my back.” It doesn’t mean you have boatloads of people and it doesn’t mean that you and your spouse never bicker. It means that you feel that you have invested in the relationship.
The other part of this that I love is it’s never too late. He has beautiful stories in there of 70-year-olds that are pretty isolated and they join a gym and before you know it, they have this new community. I’m always interested in trying to pay attention to and focus on that long game or those real things that truly matter. We all get caught up. Our mind is looking for a quick fix. We’re looking to make more money.
He talks about 80% of Millennials want to be rich and 50% of those, 80% want to be famous. For some reason, these old stories we still have to learn for ourselves. You’ll see Bob is lovely. Also, let me remind you that good relationships are good for you. The science of keeping diabetes at bay, dementia, and Alzheimer’s, and being able to go through the hard knocks of life is easier when we have good relationships. I hope you enjoy.
Robert Waldinger, welcome to the podcast. I have to say that when I knew I was going to be talking to you about what we’re going to be talking about, who doesn’t want to talk about the exploration of a satisfied life? I don’t like to use the word happiness and we’ll get into that. You have a book that’s coming out. You are the director of the longest study, 84 years. Where’s the Harvard study at right now?
84 years. It started in 1938.
To me, the fact that there’s a study that exists and it’s only been four directors in itself is pretty amazing. Most people are familiar with the Harvard study because of its length. Maybe you could share briefly know how many men, there were two groups, what it entails, and how you ended up being the latest director.
The study started as two studies and they didn’t even know about each other. One was started at Harvard University Health Services, it was started with a group of Harvard College undergraduates, 268 of them who were thought to be fine and upstanding young men. The study was a study of normal development moving from adolescence into young adulthood. Of course, if you want to study normal adult development, you study all white guys from Harvard. It’s the most politically incorrect study sample you could have. In 1938, that was what we got.
The other study started at Harvard Law School and was started by Sheldon Glueck, a law professor, and his wife, Eleanor Glueck, a social worker. They were interested in why some children, from difficult backgrounds, managed to avoid getting into trouble and managed to avoid juvenile delinquency. What was that special sauce in those troubled families that allowed those kids to stay on good paths? Eventually, those studies got combined so now we have both of them. 724 men, their wives, and now all their children, more than half of whom are women, that’s what we got.
[bctt tweet=”Tune into yourself. What lights me up? What raises my energy? What’s an energy sink? Pay attention to that.”]
You talk about that every two years, you’re doing questionnaires and you’ve done brain scans and blood draws. For people to get their heads around it, you guys do an extensive deep dive with their partners. I was laughing in the book where the wives were like, “Finally you want to talk to us.” How many of these participants are still alive?
The original participants are probably less than 40 of the 724 and they’re all in their late 90s, a few over 100. The second generation, the children, are mostly Baby Boomers, the average age is 60 and 65.
I was wondering if this was the intention of it but you say in this study, “I’m going to oversimplify what the research shows but that good relationships are good for you.” Maybe we could talk about that a little because I do want to get into the science. Also, I’d like to get into the conversations that you have in your new book. Someone could read this and go, “I didn’t do that.”
We all know that even striving for success can make collateral damage in your personal relationships and relationships with your children. You are in your 50s and 60s and you go, “I’ve blown it.” You’re saying that’s not necessarily the case. Maybe we can talk quickly about happy aging and this idea of why relationships are not only good for you and your sense of satisfaction but also cognitive function and other areas of health.
First, I want to underline what you pointed out, which is that many people think they’ve done the wrong things and so it’s too late. What we find is it’s never ever too late. There were people in our study who, in their 70s and 80s, turned their lives around and turned their relationships around. It’s never too late. You are asking this great question, how do relationships keep us healthier? We can get how they might keep us happier if our relationships are good but how could they get into our bodies and prevent us from getting type 2 diabetes, arthritis, or heart disease? How could that possibly be?
We’ve been studying that. It seems to have a lot to do with stress. When you’re either isolated or you’re in toxic relationships, your stress levels are high. The body is meant to react to stress quickly if something scares you but it’s meant to come back to baseline. What if you are chronically stressed by being lonely, by being in a terrible set of relationships? Your body never comes back to the baseline. Those stress hormones keep taking a toll on different body systems and that’s what we think is the primary mechanism by which this happens.
I’m curious, is it almost worse to be in a bad dynamic than to be alone?
We don’t know but there are a couple of studies that suggest that divorce is preferable to being in a high-conflict relationship that goes on for a long time. It’s hard to compare being alone and being in a toxic relationship.
There are probably people shaking their heads. What’s that bad joke about divorce? Is it expensive because it’s worth it? Let’s face it, sometimes we do the right thing when we’re young or we do what we’re supposed to. We follow the rules and then we get married, especially in this generation where you followed a certain system and a plan. You’ve been in a long marriage. I’ve been in almost a 25-year marriage. There are situations where it’s like, “Maybe it would be better not to…” Instead of looking at it as a failure, remind people that also sometimes it’s courageous to go, “Maybe this isn’t working.”
In many couples, when they separate, each partner is happier. Often they will go on and find relationships that are more fulfilling. If there’s a lot invested, if you have kids or if you’ve built your lives together, it’s probably worth trying some couple therapy to see. It doesn’t mean that you go to couples therapy to try to stay together. You go to couples therapy to try to figure out what the best path is forward and that might include splitting up.
That’s an important point. I’m curious, you have two sons, right?
Even to see you in all your presentations and all your talks, someone goes, “He seems naturally happier than other people.” You have fluidity. You practice meditation and you have things in place to support that homeostasis or well-being. I would love to know the areas that you work on and if anything through this process that you thought, “I’m going to incorporate that in my practice to help me.”
You can look, from the outside, like somebody else has it all figured out. Trust me, I do not have it all figured out. Trust me, I have bad days. I appreciate your question because it’s easy for us to imagine that other people are getting it right and we’re not doing it right. I’ll tell you some of what I struggled with and what I’m learning from my research. I struggle with working too much. I was raised as a kid who got good grades and achievement has been a thing for me. You then realize you could achieve your whole life away.
One of the things this work has helped me see is that I can make choices day to day to temper my work-life with relationships. For example, I think about, “Have I seen this friend in a while?” I can make a choice to reach out and say, “Can we go for a walk this weekend?” Doing a lot of walks during COVID now instead of doing other things. I try to shape my life. I could spend all Saturday afternoon working or I could spend Saturday afternoon with somebody who I haven’t seen. What I’m learning to do is make myself do the connecting when the path of least resistance is to sit here and do more emails.
To get everything always complete, closing loops, and checking off boxes. You have a quote in your book to your point, which goes something like, “The problem is we compare our inside selves with everyone’s outside selves.” It’s an important thing to highlight. My hope with these types of conversations is not only for people to get tools and friendly whispers and reminders, like, “Having more zeros isn’t going to make you feel more satisfied.” You say this a lot in your book about how this is all messy. Relationships are messy, getting older is messy, and life is messy. I don’t think that’s different for anyone regardless of what it looks like.
You are so right. One of the hard parts is that we end up giving each other the impression that we’re fine and we’ve got it figured out. Think about what we post on social media for each other, the beautiful meals we’re eating, the great beaches we’re at, or whatever. We know, intellectually, that we’re all doing. You can get this gut feeling of, “I’m missing out. Everybody else is having a great life all of the time and I’m not.” I am here to tell you, having studied thousands of lives including my own, that nobody has an easy life all the time and everybody struggles with things. It’s helpful to name that.
You never hit a bullseye. It’s something that you revisit and check in with yourself and bring it up. In the study, I did laugh that the Harvard men were never surprised why you kept checking in with them. One from the city of Boston was like, “Why are you still asking me questions?” I thought that was funny.
This scope of people was people who had nothing and accomplished everything, people who had everything and lost everything, and people who became alcoholics. You said there was a president. In summary in these questionnaires about satisfaction or how would you rate it, what were the pillars that kept showing up that people had this sense of a well-lived life or a satisfied life?
A couple of things, when people were in their 80s, we asked them to look back on their lives, and we asked them, “What are the things you’re proudest of and what are the things you regret the most?” The regrets were, “I wish I hadn’t spent so much time at work. I wish I had spent more time with family and friends, with the people who are important to me.” Another regret and women said this often is, “I wish I hadn’t worried so much about what other people thought.” Those are helpful pointers to when you look back on your life, what would you like to avoid regretting?
The things that people were proudest of, nobody mentioned, “I made a lot of money,” or, “I won this award,” or, “I became famous.” Some of our people were famous but nobody mentioned that. They all mentioned things that were about the people in their lives and the causes that they cared about so it was, “I raised good kids. I was a good friend. I mentored people. I did a lot of good work for this cause that I care so much about.” Those were the things people look back on with satisfaction.
Bob, do you think that this is an eternal human lesson that we can know this and people older than us can tell us this and we have to go through this ourselves and realize and worry and work too much? I’m always interested in things when I watch human behavior. I say this, looking in the mirror, what I’m doing. There are these things that we know to be true but yet it’s almost like we all get the hook in our mouth and we have to learn it by touching the fire. What is that?
We do. Partly it’s the way we acquire wisdom as we get older. Younger people particularly want to be famous and they want to be rich. They imagine that they’re going to want that and that it’s going to do it for them if they get those things. As we get older, we look around us more and we see who’s happy and who’s not. We think about our own experiences, “What has made me happy and what doesn’t do much for me?” It takes time to acquire that perspective on life. I want to get this message out and thank you for helping me do it. Some of it, we have to learn ourselves.
Parenting is a great example of that where you are like, “Okay, you’re learning that right now and giving space to that.” I would love to maybe go through the 20s and 30s a little bit about what would be some good questions for those individuals to ask themselves as they’re trying to organize and develop their lives.
One of the things I find helpful, at any age, especially for young adults, is to tune into yourself. What lights me up? What raises my energy? What’s an energy sink? Pay attention to that. A lot of times, the things that we love aren’t necessarily the thing that the world values right now but that changes all the time. The things that we love are important, they give us more energy. We’re usually better at the things that we love.
The other thing is what saps my energy? What brings me down? Even if the world says, “This is great. You should want to do this job,” or, “You should be with this partner.” Tune in because you’re your own gut sense of what you care about, what draws you toward it, or what saps your energy. It’s useful to keep paying attention to.
[bctt tweet=”One of the things we all need to feel like is that we matter. The thing that makes me feel the worst and gets me the angriest is when I feel like somebody’s treating me like I don’t matter.”]
When you say that, it reminds me of when I was younger and I would maybe date certain people. It was interesting. Sometimes you’d have your outside crew being like, “He’s amazing and all this,” and you’d be like, “I’m getting affirmation from them about how amazing is but I’m not feeling it.” Here’s this person over here. Nobody’s getting why I’m drawn towards them and I see things. I say this again about having kids and I try to remind myself, people know things about themselves in their lives that we can’t possibly see or know.
Yes. That’s a perfect example where everybody else is saying, “This is awesome. Go for this.” You’re saying, “I’m not feeling.” I want to share this great quote, which I love. Remember Joseph Campbell who wrote The Power of Myth, he had a quote that I love. He said, “If the path before you is clear, you’re probably on somebody else’s path.”
It’s that learning that we have to go through it. Sometimes there are outside people going, “You can do it in your own way.” By the way, your own way is harder because it maybe is a new path like this quote you’re talking about but it’s then only your path. We alluded about our biology rests upon our ability to be cooperative.
In the book, Natural Born Heroes, they talk about how competition is this made-up thing in certain ways. Obviously, people are going to compete for mates if we’re going way back. In this day and age, cooperation is connected to our evolution but our society doesn’t ultimately support that and it is this competitive nature. When we can unplug from that, maybe the comparisons and all of that, that’s where we get that chance to find our thing.
Other people can help us find our thing. If we connect with people who are curious about us and if we could be curious about them, they can help us by noticing, “You get excited when you talk about this,” or, “You are good at this.”
Maybe you could also share that our brain is hardwired for this “quick fix” and that doesn’t always work in our favor.
We’re often bad at knowing what will make us feel good in the long term. Think about alcohol and drugs, they’re a quick fix, we take them because they make us feel better in the short run. I’m happy to have a drink at times. I’m not a teetotaler. What we find is that long-term quick fixes and alcohol and drugs are the best examples because they’re clear.
These quick fixes, over time, drag us down and destroy us. The quick fix of blowing off steam and spewing your anger feels good at the moment but most of the time, that doesn’t work well. Whereas learning to use our anger as a signal and learning to use it more constructively ends up being better. Another thing is if we think about this process of othering, this tribalism that we’re also into now, those are the bad people over there.
It feels satisfying to do that at the moment and then we end up constructing a world where people are hating each other and are suspicious of each other. This quick fix of what feels better, “I’m one of the good guys and you’re the bad guys,” the quick fix ends up being long-term a source of tremendous unhappiness.”
I appreciate it, nuance, nuance disagreement, or debate. We used to celebrate healthy debate and things like that and now it’s like, “Either we all agree on every single thing,” or, “Now, you’re my opponent.” I still feel that’s connected to fear. You talk a lot in the book about certain patterns that we get when we’re young.
Let’s say someone’s had a trauma or no dad or something that’s occurred. You do an analogy with keepsakes that they keep from their childhood but you go, “Yes, but we also have them within our being, the way that we react and respond.” What did you see in the study of people who could leave that behind or be able to respond differently than maybe some of the troubles that they had when they were younger?
We saw that some people could be open to new experiences and to a next relationship not being like the last one. Even if you felt betrayed by a parent when you were young, not necessarily letting that be your expectation of the next relationship. It’s hard to do it. It’s hard to be curious about, “Who is this person in front of me when I’ve got so many expectations coming from having been traumatized in the past?’ Some people are able to do that.
One of the ways that people overcome some of these past traumas is through good relationships in the present. Being with somebody who helps you see, “It can be different. Someone can be trustworthy.” Even though you had a hard time in the past, those new experiences with new relationships can turn people’s expectations around.
That group wasn’t necessarily encouraged to go to therapy. That group had to muscle it. Even in certain ways, you and I are the tail end of, “Suck it up.” They were really sucking it up. You’re talking about depression, living through the Great Depression, and World War II. There wasn’t a lot of room for everybody’s feelings.
That’s the million-dollar question, talking about the woman who helped start this, is it the person who’s born a certain way? Was their mother extra supportive and loving even though things were very difficult? Were there any common threads of things that helped somebody be able to move beyond?
Yes. Warm relationships, when you’re young, do set the stage for good relationships when you’re older and that’s a stroke of luck. We don’t choose the family we’re born into. We know that it makes an enormous difference. The reason why that’s important is we can’t go back and redo our childhoods but we can do it better for our own kids and the next generations. It matters that kids are raised in a setting of love and safety, it matters hugely. There are ways to overcome some of these earlier difficult experiences and some of our people did overcome them.
I did write this down and I’m going to read it because you said about love. I still have two teenagers at home. You say in your book, “Hold but don’t baby, admire but don’t embarrass, guide but don’t control, and release but don’t abandon.”
It’s hard to do when you have teenagers. Your kids are saying, “Leave me alone, mom,” but they don’t want you to leave them completely alone.
I find that teenagers weirdly are like, “Get away from me,” but when they turn around, they need you to be standing behind them more than ever. It’s that transition, like, “I’m breaking away from you. I’m trying to navigate my own life. I better think I know something. Otherwise, why would I take this on?” That’s why we have know-it-all kids. Come on, who would have the balls to take on the life if you didn’t think, “I got this.”
You said about the women not worrying about so much what other people felt. I would be curious if, in addition to that, it was also not to worry so much and fret about our children because we do spend so much time fretting because we’re not objective, it’s the most important job we do. You see the 80-year-old that’s like, “It’s a phase. It’ll be okay.” You’re sitting here biting your nails going, “Oh.” I feel like it’s over and over. Is that what the job takes though maybe at that moment?
Partly, what we do as parents is worry about stupid stuff. We worry about the stuff that turns out not to be important. Worrying about whether our kids are learning kindness, whether they’re learning emotional intelligence about how to work with a conflict with another kid, and how to manage difficulties in relationships, those are important. Whether they use the right fork for the salad, not so much.
Yes, some of those things can be helpful as you get through the world but emotional intelligence, these relationship skills, we know from research, are important. There have been studies that suggest that success in the working world is predicted much less by your IQ, by your intelligence, than it is by your emotional intelligence or by your relationship skills. What we can worry about as parents is, “Are my kids learning to get along with other people? Are they learning to be interested in other people, to be curious, and not to be jerks with other people?
Let’s talk about that though. In this day and age, you’ve maybe seen more of the transition than other directors of the study before you. With technology and devices and such, are there new concerns for young people that are starting to show up maybe even in the questionnaires or things that they’re talking about in your studies? Learning to be interested in other people when everyone is becoming more increasingly disconnected and uncomfortable having eye contact, talking, and all these things, I’m wondering if that’s starting to show up and if you have any concerns about that.
Disconnection is a problem and some of it is based on how people use social media. Many kids spend much of their lives online. One of the things we know is that how people use social media makes a big difference in how they develop and how happy they are. Particularly for teenagers, kids who are passive consumers of social media like scrolling Instagram feeds bleed people to be more depressed, more anxious, and more insecure.
Using social media to actively connect with others and then maybe be able to even meet them offline in the real world can provide good connections and can help people develop relationship skills, which they need to develop. The biggest challenge that you and I didn’t face but that our kids are facing now is how we relate in a world where so much goes online. Learning to use social media instead of being swept along by it is an important thing that we can help our kids figure out.
I joke because I am freaked out that my youngest daughter is the experiment. Somehow, my older two freaked out but I’m watching and I’m like, “This is the experiment.” Quite frankly, we all have the data, we all know the tricks, we all know the slot machine, we know the dopamine hits, and we know all of it but yet none of us are doing it well. I’m also secretly being maybe naively faithful that, somehow, if I’m a good example and we keep having conversations and she sees her dad and I and her sister is relating and she has friendships that maybe as the brain develops, somehow they’ll work it out. I don’t know.
That is important. As far as we can tell, all the things you named are important. Another thing you could do with your child is move. It’s an experiment. Ask her to do an experiment to notice different times she’s doing different things online and notice how she feels after twenty minutes or half an hour doing one thing and then how she feels doing a different thing.
Notice what her energy is like and what her mood is like. She may begin to notice, “When I’m on TikTok, I don’t feel good. I start to feel down. I start to feel FOMO. When I’m doing this thing, when I’m in this chat room talking about this, I enjoy it and I get excited.” She can take her own temperature as she uses social media in different waves to see and then she can learn what to stay away from and what to go toward.
I like the way it sounds. Teenage girls are an interesting dynamic. By the way, I’m glad but I don’t have compliant children. The idea would maybe have to come from somewhere else. We have a constant saying in our house, somebody who lives a mile away. It dawns on me, does this concern you, the study? Is it changing? Because of the speed of our world and technology, have there been some obvious things that are showing up in our culture and civilization on the amount that people are being hit with all the time?
[bctt tweet=”Many people think they’ve done the wrong things and so it’s too late. What we find is it’s never ever too late.”]
We are finding out a little bit about how we’re serving our second generation about their online behaviors. However, they’re in their 60s and 70s. At this point, we’re not studying the 3rd and 4th generations, and those are the folks that you and I are talking about. We don’t know yet. There are a lot of other good studies of younger people and how they’re using the internet.
You talk a lot about happiness. I’m curious for you personally, how do you define it? What does it mean to you? A lot of times, in the questionnaires, it’s a scale of numbers like 1 to 10 or such. Do you think it is that?
Sometimes people, on day-to-day. What I appreciate about this study is you say, “It’d be impossible to go back and ask someone to remember the last 80 years. We try to keep up with them and get their temperature every couple of years.” From your point of view as somebody who’s running this study, what does it mean to you? What does happiness mean to you and how do you define it?
The way I define it and the way I’ve seen these lives play out is that the people who are the happiest, including me, are when we feel engaged in the world, and when we feel like we’re in it. It doesn’t matter how, it could be doing anything. It could be nuclear physics, bungee jumping, gardening, or anything. Also, what brain science tells us is that you stay sharper when you stay engaged with the world. What we worry about are the people who withdraw from the world and not people who are shy because shy people can be engaged but it’s the people who disengage, who stop caring, and who stop being out there in the world doing things that are meaningful to them.
You said something that’s important too. There are people who are more naturally introverted. You’re not saying, “It’s not about not being introverted but it’s about being engaged.” I’m also curious about people who are more alone than they want to be versus somebody who’s choosing. They like the simplicity of more quiet. Is there a difference in the way that their sense of satisfaction is showing up being measured?
Totally. Loneliness is that subjective feeling of, “I want more connection. I’m not as connected as I want to be.” Relative isolation, you’re a hermit, you might love it. Some days, especially if you have three daughters, I bet you imagine some days you’d like being a hermit somewhere. Some people love that. Some people love quiet and simplicity in their lives, there is nothing wrong with that, there’s a lot right with that.
I wanted to make that differentiation. It’s funny, when you said gardening, as long as I maybe have those couple of meaningful connections. I want to remind people, you say clearly that there might be couples who bicker. Everybody has different styles but it’s like, “This person genuinely has my back.” It’s the important part.
In my house, I joke that my husband and I are both probably too mean to fight so we don’t bicker because it doesn’t work. We don’t have that personality. We weren’t raised that way. It’s not about like, “We’re happy and it’s all good.” It’s like, “This person loves me and has my back.” It doesn’t mean also lots of connections. It could be somebody who’s like, “I go out and hike in the mountains and I commune with nature and that brings me this incredible feeling. I have two badass friends I can call and connect with.”
Exactly, we need to feel like there’s somebody there. We asked our people at one point, “Who could you call in the middle of the night if you were sick or scared?” Some people could list quite a few and some people couldn’t list anyone. What we see is that what people want is what you’re saying, they want to feel that there’s somebody in the world who has their back. As long as you’ve got even one person, many people are fine with that, that’s enough.
I use the word happiness as a target area and not, “We get there and we live there,” but this feeling of the good life. What do you see as some of the greatest obstacles for the collective, for our culture? We could get into people used to living multi-generational and homes and things like that but right now, what shows up for you as some of the barriers to that?
Some of the barriers are that we have many influences pulling us away from the community. It doesn’t mean that we have to live in multi-generational homes but it means that so much of our world is constructed, especially in the United States, around isolation, and around tiny nuclear families. Not enough time to spend cultivating relationships and not enough motivation to go out and volunteer in the community or be part of community groups. There are other cultures where the community is still absolutely central. That may be one of the biggest obstacles to having lives that we feel are good and meaningful, and we’re not happy all the time but we say, “This is good enough.”
Maybe share about the importance of being the person who would go first.
Who would go first to reach out?
Yes. I was asked a question a long time ago by Tim Ferris, he asked me, “What advice would you say?” I say, “To go first. Say good morning first. Say hello first.” I always joke that because I’m 6’3”, I bully people into engaging with me all the time even when they don’t want to. I’m like, “How are you?” They’re like, “Ugh.” It’s scary but you realize everybody wants to.
Can I tell you about an experiment?
It’s a little geeky but it points to what you’re saying. Some researchers did an experiment where they had a bunch of people who were about to take a subway. They were randomly assigned to either do what they normally did, which was looking at their phones, reading, listening to music, and keeping to themselves, or to strike up a conversation with a stranger.
Is this in New York?
I have to go back and look. I think it was in New York. Before they did it, they said, “Rate how much you think you’re going to like this task that you’ve been assigned.” As you can imagine, the people who were going to do their usual thing thought they would be happy and the people who were going to have to strike up a conversation with a stranger thought they weren’t going to like it.
After they completed their assignment, they gave them the questionnaire again and the people who struck up conversations with strangers were way happier than the people who did what they always did on the subway. It speaks to your point of going first. Even if it feels like, “This is awkward, I don’t know if I’m going to it,” Try. Even if you’re not 6’3”, strike up the conversation.
I’m working with what I have, Bob.
You’re doing pretty well.
I also want to say too that there’s something to be said. Also, we start to divide into troops, like, “I’m a female and you’re a male. I’m this person’s that age and this person is this.” What you start to learn is when you do go first and you say hello to people, whether they’re 85 or they’re 15, at that moment, you look in someone’s eyes, it’s like, “You’re a human. I’m a human.” It’s interesting. A 15-year-old boy does not want to say hello to a middle-aged woman. If I’m like, “What’s up?” They’re like, “Hey.”
Conversely, some 85-year-old might be in her bubble but if I’m like, “How are you today?” They’re ready. I want to always encourage people. It is scary and weird and now I get pleasure out of the discomfort of somebody. If you ask somebody, “How’s your day?” I can tell you, 50% of the time, they say, “What?” It’s because nobody asks them, “How’s your day?”
Especially, nobody wants to know. Sometimes they’ll ask it in a formulaic way but you want to know.
Why not? In writing this book, I’m curious about the overall takeaway. If you said, “If people could take these 2 things away or 3 things,” the pillars of what you wanted it to represent, what is that?
The biggest takeaway is that relationships matter and that investing time in keeping them strong and building strong ones matters, it’s one of the best investments you can make in your life so that’s the first Probably the second thing is that it’s never too late. Even if you’re convinced that you’re terrible at this, you can get better and things can get better in your relationships.
You have a story, I believe the gentleman’s name was Andrew Deering. He was maybe in his 70s. Am I getting this right? Do you recall that?
It felt like he had a curmudgeon type of deal and his satisfaction was pretty low. He went and made some changes.
He joined a gym and he got a bunch of friends. This guy who’d had not very many relationships and had kept to himself suddenly found this community that he enjoyed. Some people find that when they moved to retirement communities. Some people find it, for the first time, in a nursing home, believe it or not. It is never too late for this to happen.
What interesting and I know we’ve all experienced this is sometimes we blow it in our familial way. We were young, we were stressed out, and we didn’t know better. People do evolve and they get it but it’s almost everyone else in their life won’t let them be the new them. It’s reminding people, you have your chosen family, your given family. It’s not about the way it’s supposed to be, it could also be like you said, “I’ll move into a retirement home. People see me for who I am today.” That can be pretty great.
I have one last thing that was intriguing to me when people talked about befriending or the trickiness of being friendly with coworkers. You discussed this in the book, I thought this was interesting because you want to care about how everyone feels but maybe if you’re, let’s say, in the manager position or the boss position, there’s something hard or uncomfortable about that. Maybe we could talk about that a little bit. That’s the thing, you’re trying to connect with people and are interested but you also have to say to them, “We have to do better in our job.” It can be an interesting dynamic.
The important thing is to try to be upfront about it with each other to say, “I’m your boss so there are going to be times when it may get awkward and we need to talk about it. I want you as my friend and at times I’m going to have to put my boss hat on.” As the subordinate, you’re going to have to feel like you can say, “I’m not happy with what’s going on here in our friendship.”
It is tricky but it doesn’t mean it’s impossible. Obviously, it’s easier if you make friends with people where there’s no power differential but that’s hard to do. It’s not always possible. The next best thing is to be able to talk about it when there’s a power imbalance and keep that as one of the things that the friendship gets to discuss.
Do you ever lose your temper? You don’t seem like a person who would lose their temper.
I do sometimes but not very often. I have a long fuse but then when I do, it’s not good.
What gets you? My family can get me because I care so much and I’m passionate. For the other stuff, I’m better at being objective. I’m curious about what gets you.
It’s feeling not heard and not appreciated. Sometimes I can reach a boiling point when I feel like I’m trying hard and somebody is either not paying attention or not listening and that I don’t matter. One of the things we all need to feel like is that we matter. The thing that makes me feel the worst and gets me the angriest is when I feel like somebody’s treating me like I don’t matter.
That’s all of us, especially when you’re trying to be kinder so you’re like, “Let’s not misconstrue this for somebody who isn’t serious about something. I want to say that in this book, for me, there were a lot of things that I knew but there were many important reminders and all these different dynamics between husbands and wives. I loved Henry and Rosa. There was something in there that I also want to bring up before we finish. What is it that I’m missing or what is it that I’m not seeing within the relationships?
What’s here that I haven’t noticed before? That’s a question I learned in meditation but it works well in relationships.
I wanted to bring that up. The book has so much information but also so many beautiful stories and inspiring stories because they’re real people. Also, to remind people, more money, $75,000 isn’t going to make a difference. The fact that I thought was interesting though was if 80% of Millennials think they want to be rich and 50% of those think they want to be famous, we all need to get out there and connect with each other and make sure we’re building bridges, for sure.
Wealth and fame aren’t going to do it, not by themselves.
No, they’re not. Bob, did I miss anything that feels important to you?
No. You’re good at this, I guess you know that. You’re a good interviewer. I appreciate it. You know a lot about what we’re trying to say. I appreciate it. You did a lot of preparation for this and I want to name it.
First of all, I respect people’s time very much. I have been interviewed many times and when someone comes not ill-prepared, I’m less generous. Also, this is an important message, it’s subtle. Like everything that’s important, it’s usually not so sizzly and sexy but it’s rich and deep. I appreciate your time. Doing a book takes a lot of work so it warrants being read and honored. I want to say thank you. I want to end this with your Mark Twain quote, “There isn’t time, so brief is life, for bickering, apologies, heartburns callings to account. There is only time for loving and but an instant, so to speak, for that.” Thank you, Bob Waldinger. I appreciate your time and aloha.
Gabby, this was such a pleasure. Thank you. I enjoyed this. Bye.
Thank you so much for reading this episode. If you have any questions for my guest or even myself, please send them to @GabbyReece on Instagram. If you feel inspired, please hit the follow button, and leave a rating and a comment. It not only helps me, it helps the show grow and reach new readers.
Subscribe to The Gabby Reece Show
- Robert Waldinger
- The Good Life: Create A More Meaningful and Satisfying Life
- The Power of Myth
- Natural Born Heroes
About Robert Waldinger
Robert Waldinger, MD, is a psychiatrist, psychoanalyst and Zen priest. He is Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital, where he directs the Harvard Study of Adult Development, the longest scientific study of happiness ever conducted. Dr. Waldinger is the author of The Good Life, which examines the central role of relationships in shaping our health and well-being. His TEDx talk on this subject has received nearly 44 million views. Waldinger’s book, The Good Life: Lessons from the World’s Longest Scientific Study of Happiness, shows us how we can make our lives happier and more meaningful through our connections to others.