From Harvard, the secret to improving happiness
Welcome to the first Sunday in April and a month dedicated to the power of TED talks here in The Communicator column. TED Talks, as a 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 rewarding career and life-enhancing topic they shared on this red carpet circle iconically placed on a chat stage. TED.
y first introduction is by Dr. Robert Waldinger. He is a clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and notably directs the Harvard Study of Adult Development, one of the oldest studies on happiness.
Bob opened his 2015 TEDx talk (to date with 41 million views), with this thoughtful question: “If you were to invest in your future now, where would you spend your time and energy?”
You might think that acquiring money, prestige or fame would be the obvious way to lead a fulfilling and happy life. But, “the secret in plain sight,” as Bob describes it, is evidenced by the study’s nearly 80 years of wide-ranging data.
In 1938, 268 sophomores from Harvard, including future US President John F Kennedy, were selected. Another cohort, of 456 disadvantaged young men from inner-city Boston neighborhoods, was also chosen to be studied in tandem.
The scientists conducted in-depth, in-person interviews with both groups of men through questionnaires and in-person interviews. (Yes, all of the participants were male. Women weren’t allowed at Harvard when the study began.) Interestingly, the study initially focused on “biological determinism,” an important theory of the time, with researchers examining the physical and intellectual factors of the participants. , including skull size and handwriting styles, as possible indicators of happiness.
The study has evolved to include newer means of research like DNA testing and MRI scans. It has also expanded to include family members and subsequent generations, as “only 10 of the original Harvard men are still alive. They are all in their late 90s or just over 100 years old. And about 40 of the original downtown men are still alive, all in their 90s,” Bob explained. Incidentally, before imagining that Bob discovered the secret to eternal life alongside the key. Happiness, he is the program’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 agreed, and he assumed the reason he was chosen was because, like George before him, he was both a clinician and a researcher.
“This is a study of human life, so the experience of studying lives that clinicians do every day is important. Rather than just being a researcher trained in multiple-choice questions, I figured out how to gather more qualitative information, like sitting down with someone for four hours and asking them about their life,” Bob said. Of course, I like 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 the way we’re wired?
BOB: “Both. It’s partly how we’re wired. We all have some sort of happiness cue. But we can change. We can make ourselves happier. It’s not too late for anyone. 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 relationships change. A man was so isolated and then when he retired , he decided to join a health club and he started going there every day and he started saying hello to a few people and he grew up and his whole social network was in this health club and then they are met outside and his life has changed.
GINA: I got you. So, you have to make an effort. For example, he had to say “Hello”.
BOB: “Yeah, that’s the most useful thing for your readers. We have come to think of taking care of our relationships as we take care of our bodies. It is an ongoing practice. Even our closest ones, if we put them on autopilot, even if there is nothing wrong, they will become stale and wither away. It’s the same with our friendships, our working relationships, even small relationships are important, like saying “hello” to our postman. Social fitness, like physical fitness, is something that will improve our lives.
GINA: Is there a different approach for someone who identifies as an introvert?
BOB: If you’re the person who only needs one or two close relationships, that’s okay. Stick to those. Do not do what drains and exhausts. It is not unhealthy to live with fewer relationships.
GINA: What are you doing differently as a result of the study?
BOB: I’m more aware now of who I want to see, who should I see. I actively reach out my hand. This is a difference for me compared to before the study. I also try to really listen when someone, like my wife, talks to me.
For more on the subject, you can pre-order Bob’s next new book, The good life written with fellow Harvard researcher Dr. Marc Schulz. The book is due out in January 2023 from Penguin Books.