Robert Waldinger, psychiatrist: ‘Happiness depends on what we’re lacking’

The director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, the most comprehensive investigation ever done on what makes us happy, talks to EL PAÍS about joy, relationships and giving up our dreams

Robert Waldinger
Robert Waldinger, psychiatrist and coauthor of 'The Good Life: Lessons from the World’s Longest Scientific Study of Happiness.'Santi Burgos
Aser García Rada

Pyschiatrist Robert Waldinger practices what he preaches. As the director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, one of the longest-running studies on how to live healthy, happy and purpose-filled lives, he knows how to apply “his own medicine” — and kindly demonstrates it. He is currently promoting The Good Life: Lessons from the World’s Longest Scientific Study of Happiness, a book — co-written with Marc Schulz, the associate director of the study — that reveals the key findings of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, which has been running for 85 years and made discoveries that have surprised the researchers themselves. It’s not money, professional success or vacations to tropical paradises that make us happy, but rather our relationships with others. This is what determines to what extent we are happy with our lives, and to a large extent, how long we will live for.

Waldinger’s predecessors started the study in 1939 from two independent investigations: one that looked at 268 Harvard students — among them, John F. Kennedy — and another into 456 teenagers from marginalized neighborhoods in Boston. All the participants were male and white. Over the course of the study, the researchers have watched these men grow up and die, and over time, included their children and partners. The paricipants were subject to questionnaires and periodic visits that delve beyond the surface into their deepest fears, joys and relationships, as well as brain scans and other analyses.

Just like the participants of the study, the researchers of the have also aged over time: Waldinger is already the study’s fourth director. He lives in Boston with his wife, to whom he has been married to for 37 years. He is a Zen master and wanted to be an actor, but found it hard to deal with the negative reviews. This interview took place in a central hotel in Madrid, where he is currently promoting the book. He has been to Madrid before — one of his two children taught English in Valdemoro — but he has used the trip to visit the Prado Museum and Retiro Park. Waldinger is used to talking about his work — his TED talks has 45 million views — and speaks clearly and warmly about the research. He only takes a long pause before answering the last question.

Question. You follow all the people who participate in the study for decades, you know what they vote for, you have their DNA, you see inside their brains... It looks like an in-depth Big Brother.

Answer. Yes, very much in depth. Most research is snapshots, where you just look at one point in time. In fact, 97% of research about human life is done just studying something right now. Longitudinal research is a much deeper and complicated enterprise. Most longitudinal studies stop before it’s been ten years because the funding dries out, the directors get tired... So, the fact that this has been going for 85 years is unheard of.

Q. I imagine it is complicated to have so many variables to analyse.

A. Absolutely. We must be careful about not doing what we call in English a fishing expedition, where you crunch a lot of numbers, and you see if you can find some findings that are statistically significant. And then you say, oh that’s a significant finding! So, we have to take precautions so that we have confidence that our findings are not by chance.

Q. How does it feel to open a person’s dossier and find their whole life in a handful of pages?

A. Well, you feel that life goes very fast. I can flip through from the beginning to the end of a life in five minutes. But it’s also very humbling. It feels like a huge privilege to be able to watch a life unfold like that. That’s what attracted me into doing this research. My predecessor, George Vaillant, was the third director and asked me if I wanted to come in and take over the study. I wasn’t sure because it’s very complicated, but he said, just read two life stories. And when I did that, I thought I definitely want to do this.

Q. What is happiness to you?

A. For me it is engaging in meaningful activities and being connected to people I care about and who care about me.

Q. Do perceptions of happiness vary between different people?

A. What we call happiness depends on what we need. So, if you come from a very unstable background, maybe for you happiness is stability. If you come from a very boring background, maybe for you happiness is excitement. So partly it depends on what we feel we’re lacking. But the research suggests that happiness is two big categories. One is hedonic, am I having a good time right now? Am I enjoying this cup of coffee? The other one is eudemonic wellbeing, from Aristotle. It has to do with the sense that life is meaningful, that life is worthwhile.

Robert Waldinger, during the interview.
Robert Waldinger, during the interview.Santi Burgos

Q. Are there any differences between how men and women or people of different ages feel happiness?

A. I don’t think women and men are different, and I don’t even think age groups are either. What we know is that everyone wants some of both kinds of happiness. Everyone wants some momentary pleasure, and no one wants to feel that their life has no meaning. But we make one type of happiness a priority depending on how we are, and maybe depending on the times in our lives. We think of many teenagers as wanting more hedonic wellbeing, but I’m not sure about that. What I do know is that both types of wellbeing are important to most people, but to different degrees.

Q. Would your conclusions be different if the study had been based on a more representative sample of the population?

A. The results, the numbers of course would’ve been different. But what you are asking is, would the big conclusions be different? We are careful not to publish something that may just be idiosyncratic to our study. For example, the big finding that relationships make us happier and keep us physically healthier. If we had only found that in our study, we would’ve never written a book about it. But many other teams have found the same in different investigations. Studies of less privileged groups, different racial or cultural groups around the world. We think that because so many different studies point in the same direction, that we can have confidence in the major findings that we have. That said, there is always room to be surprised, to find out that you were wrong when you’re doing research.

Q. You stress the importance of relationships; how does this apply in the age of loneliness and unconventional relationships?

A. You don’t need to be in a couple or to be in a romantic relationship to get the benefits. Those seem to be from the warmth of connection, from the sense of belonging, the sense of positive interaction. And we get bits of it from friendly encounters with someone you buy your coffee from, or someone who delivers your mail. And certainly, from friends, from relatives. I think in the U.S., something like 30% of the people live by themselves. But many of those people are quite happy. They don’t have a romantic partner, but they have relationships that provide them with what they need.

Q. Do you think some people may feel guilty for not strengthening ties with friends or family, as you recommend?

A. There’s always room to feel guilty, right? [laughs]. There are so many things telling us what we should do, how we should live, what we should eat… There are so many “shoulds” floating around in the culture. Besides, some people are shy, introverted, and they don’t need much social interaction, so they should not be very social with people, because it’s stressful for them. So, it’s a highly individual matter. What we’re hoping to do is simply raise awareness of the importance of relationships, rather that say, “you need to do this.” Just to help people see that focusing on relationships can be a source of wellbeing.

P. You mention the small day-to-day relationships, but in some countries, for example, banks are closing branches, reducing their face-to-face hours, and encouraging the need to make appointments. What would you say to those who run such businesses?

A. I don’t know what to say to those people because we know it’s less expensive to let technology do these interactions. But it’s much less satisfying. Have you ever called a customer service line? It is so difficult to get through to a human being. This worrisome trend of economics is driving us towards more disconnection. I think much is going to depend on what people end up demanding. Everybody buys their books from Amazon in the U.S., or you buy electronic books, and you just get it downloaded to your phone. But there is now a resurgence of independent bookstores because people like to go in, they like to talk to the owner, to handle a book, they like to ask questions about it. So it may be that as people begin to miss this kind of interaction that they will demand it. There are companies in the U.S. now that advertise, “if you call us, you will get a human being within 30 seconds.” That’s a plus, that might become a money maker to reverse this trend. It depends a lot on what people are willing to pay.

Q. The book does not mention anything about the deep relationships we can establish with non-human animals, such as cats or dogs. Why?

A. We didn’t study it; pets were in the background. They are much more now understood to be sources of wellbeing, that they take care of us as much as we take care of them. I think we will ask about it next time.

Q. Contrary to popular belief, you explain that we cannot do more than one thing at a time and stress the health benefits of focusing our attention. How do we do this in the face of an overabundance of stimuli?

A. There is a good study that shows that even if the phone is turned off or turned over, but on the table, conversations are less deep [he picks up his cellphone and puts it in his pocket; the interviewer also takes it out]. So just having a screen present, means that you are less likely to be fully engaged with another person. I think it’s being aware of the things that take us away of each other. Think about all the times when we’re in restaurants, and you see a whole table of people sitting and everyone’s on their phone. And specially if it’s young people, many times they’re not talking to each other, they’re testing each other around the table. It’s like a complete replacement of face-to-face interaction. And these screens are not going to go away, so the question is can we be more mindful of the effects of screens?

Q. How do they influence us?

A. Software is designed to capture our attention and to hold it, because the longer our attention is focused on it, the more money they make. So, it’s in their interest to hold us captive. There are many other influences that are trying to raise awareness about deliberately unhooking from your screens, so that one-on-one attention is something we’re allowed to give each bother. But it takes huge effort, because we are all being drawn more and more into avoiding each other. That sounds depressing.

Q. You also stress that generosity, curiosity and flexibility to adapt to changes are linked to happiness, which some people may consider naïve.

A. It has been shown in rigorous experiments that generosity makes people happier. Also, all the wisdom and religious traditions — I practice Zen and Buddhism — are constantly talking about kindness and generosity. For centuries people have understood that it actually works that way. It’s not naïve, it turns out to be how things work. And people who are more self-centred are less happy. There is a quote from the Dalai Lama, which I love: the wise selfish person, takes care of other people. The understanding is that being concerned about other people brings you joy, more wellbeing. And you can train yourself to do that. Like generosity, curiosity about others, kindness towards others end up making us happy. There’s a bumper sticker in the U.S. that says, “perform random acts of kindness.”

Q. What about spirituality or religious beliefs?

A. In studies of this kind or in our research, when we compare people with religious or spiritual beliefs with those without, one group is not happier than the other. The people who did have them said that they found it comforting during difficult times, but they weren’t happier on average. You can find studies that will show some increase in happiness or wellbeing from people who are religious, but you can find other studies that don’t show that.

Q. You told The Guardian that you wanted to be an actor, but gave it up because you weren’t able to take the rejection. How does pursuing a dream or giving it up affect our happiness? What is the wise choice?

A. That’s a good question. I loved doing theater, I really enjoyed it. I did act and directed, as a student. But I would be crushed every time we got a review that was bad. When the reviewer didn’t like the play, or didn’t like me as an actor, I would feel so terrible that I thought, “that’s going to hurt over and over again, I don’t know if I’m ever going to get used to that.” So, on the one hand I had this dream that I loved, but I also thought “this is probably not going to be good for my wellbeing, I’m probably going to suffer a lot if I do this,” and I was able to find other things that I really enjoy, like this work. One of my friends, who is a theater director, tells young actors: “don’t do this profession unless there is nothing else you could ever do.” You know, let go of the dream if you can find other dreams. I think most of us can. If you can’t, if this is the only thing you could ever do with your life, then you must do it.

Q. How has leading this study shaped your life?

A. It’s made me pay more attention to my own relationships. I’m a professor, I could work all the time, reading, writing, doing my emails. And specially once my kids were grown up and left, and I didn’t have them come in and say, “come on, do this with me” or “drive me to this place,” I realized I could just work endlessly and that my relationships would not do well. So, I began to pay more attention to staying in contact with friends, being sure that I made time, even during the pandemic, to go for walks. So, I build those in first and then, when I have time I do my email, I edit a paper... What I’ve tried to do is to take my own medicine, to practice what I preach.

Q. What would you say to the next director of the study?

A. I would say… keep opening yourself up to being surprised. It’s possible to make research in a way where you always know what you’re going to find, asking questions that are so predictable and get the research published. But some of our most interesting findings have been because we were surprised. In fact, this finding about relationships, we didn’t believe it at first. We knew that good relationships could keep you happier, but how could they make it less likely that you could get coronary artery disease? So, we began to do more extensive measures of heart coronary functioning, more genetic measures of stress related, epigenetic phenomena. We’re trying to be playful in how we do the science.

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