Robert Waldinger is the director of the world's longest scientific study on happiness - The Harvard Study of Adult Development. Waldinger reveals the importance of strong relationships in predicting both physical and mental health.
Robert Waldinger is the director of the world's longest scientific study on happiness - The Harvard Study of Adult Development. Waldinger shares insights from this extraordinary study, which has been ongoing since 1938, and reveals the importance of strong relationships in predicting both physical and mental health.
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Srini: Bob. Welcome to the Unmistakable Creative. Thanks so much for taking the time to join.
Robert Waldinger: I am delighted to be here.
Srini: it is my pleasure to have you here.
So you have a new book out called The Good Life and I know that probably everybody listening to this has heard of you because you have one of the most 10 watched Ted talks of all time.
But before we enter all of that, I thought we'd start with a very fitting question, given the subject matter of your book and your work, and that is what social group were you a part of high school and what impact did that end up having on your life and career and the choices?
Robert Waldinger: Wow, okay. So, I wasn't one of the cool kids. I was actually one of the smart kids and being smart in Des Moines, Iowa, was uncool. Cuz I liked school. But I was also one of the theater kids. I love acting in place and I actually was a part of a pantomime. In my high school. and so those were my people and I really loved that because these were people who were pretty expressive and a little out there, especially for, Des Moines, Iowa.
Robert Waldinger: and so yeah, so I, I both felt like an outsider and had a little tribe of people who I felt cared about me and I cared about.
Srini: What is it about.
theater people that makes them such a tight-knit group? Because my best friend was in theater in high school. He's the leading musicals and. When we talk about, reunions and stuff like that, almost all the people he's still close to are people that he knew from theater. And I wondered what that is.
Like, I always got that sense that there was this just really deep sense of camaraderie with theater people that I didn't necessarily see in other high school social groups.
Robert Waldinger: I think it must do with creating something together. . And I think teams, I think sports teams often have such camaraderie because you're doing something together that, that has to be a co-creation. And so you have this shared goal, and then when it comes off, it's so exciting.
And so there's something about building toward a performance of a play a musical that's just its so bond. because and of course there are so many mistakes and jokes and gaffs and all these things that you then get to reminisce about. It was my favorite thing during my adolescence
Robert Waldinger: far.
Srini: were you born and raised in Des Moines?
Robert Waldinger: I was.
Srini: Okay, so this is something I've always wondered about. I remember asking Lydia Denworth about this. I moved around as a kid a lot. I moved after my first-year student year in high school and I always thought because this just had such a disruptive impact on my, friendships in high school.
And it's funny cuz I went out on a date last night with a girl I went to high school with who I didn't know at all in high school. And we. We had a really nice time. It was.
Just interesting. But I wonder you studied friendship as well. How, what have you noticed in terms of how friendships differ when somebody has lived in one place their entire life versus kids like me, who they call third culture kids, where we've lived in every damn corner of the planet, which I wouldn't trade for the world now, but when I was young, I just, every time we moved I was annoyed with my parents that were leaving to another.
, particularly after the freshman year of high school.
Robert Waldinger: Yeah. Yeah. Oh, that must have been rough. So I think it varies. This varies depending on the kind of person you are. Some kids, no moving is hard, no matter who you are. But some kids are just, better at, have an easier time making new friends. And so for those kids, it's not devastating to move. It's hard, but then you settle in, you find new friends in the next place at the next school, right?
Some ki for some kids, It's really traumatic for some kids, they never catch up. It sets them back socially. And so I think a lot depends on who you are. I would guess that you. A somewhat socially okay kid.
Robert Waldinger: figured
Out ways to talk to people, to reach out to new people when you move to a new place.
Srini: It's not a coincidence that I've built a career that ensures that I'll never stop meeting new people.
Robert Waldinger: Yeah. Exactly. Exactly. But that doesn't say it wasn't hard for you. It's just that, I think what you were probably one of those kids who had the inner resources to meet the challenge of moving.
Srini: . The thing that, the reason I asked that question is I noticed this profound difference between my friendships and my sister's friendships. She, when she got married, half of her bridesmaids were her friends from high school. I think there must have been five of them. And I just thought to myself I have one friend from high school. I even consider inviting to my wedding.
He's my best friend. We didn't even become best friends until 20 years after we graduated. I noticed she has these friends that have been there in her life since they were in the sixth grade, and they're still friends to this day. And I think about my closest friends, and they're the ones I've made later in my adult life, like in my late thirties and early forties.
I wonder, and it's not like the depth of those friendships is any less, rich than my sister's friendships. But it's different. Like, we don't have this history. 20 plus years together. And as somebody who grew up in one place, your, for so much of your life, I wonder how that affects your own friendships and, have you seen the differences in those two groups?
Robert Waldinger: We haven't studied that in our research, but I know from my own experience that I have some friends. I have one friend who I played with starting at the age of three, and she's still my friend. I have a friend who I'm really quite. Close to still who I went to kindergarten with and all the way through school until we went to different colleges.
Those are different friendships. I will say, for example, that I've grown apart from each of them, I don't think they would be my friends now if we were just starting out. We do very different things. We have different sensibilities, but because we have this shared history, like I can argue with my friend Dennis about something that happened in the third.
And our wives sit and look at us and just laugh, What is this? And there's something you can't make old friends, at this point in life. They are like, it just doesn't happen. And so he will always be my friend be, even though we're different and even though we annoy each other because this shared history is something that no one else has.
When we had Lydia Denworth here, she was talking about how our friendships changed throughout our lives. People move away, people's lives change. I wanna bring back a clip from my conversation with her. Take a listen.
Robert Waldinger: Yeah.
mediaboard_sounds: It's just much harder to maintain a relationship when people move further apart, but it's not impossible. So it really depends on motivation again and how much it matters and how, I think what does happen is to be generous. We'll say that people get busy and then they get caught up with the new.
People in their lives or their work. And the longer things go when they haven't seen someone, the less connected they feel, the less up on the day-to-day of their life that person is. And so it's natural that it can fade away sometimes, and it's not actually the end of the world. This is a thing I think is important.
So when you said that it didn't feel reciprocated in the same way, that's the critical juncture where you can say to yourself, Maybe this friend isn't, this friendship isn't sustaining me in the same way, and I'm gonna let it go, or I'm gonna shuffle I, the analogy I like to use is that if you think of your friends, as you've seen in the book of, concentric circles, the people closest to you, and then a little further out.
A little further out, when you have a friend like that, it doesn't mean that you must not be friends with them anymore, but you shuffle the furniture of your friendship to an outer room, , right?
Srini: what do you make of that? You're the guy who studied this probably more in depth than almost anybody.
Robert Waldinger: Yeah, I think she's right in terms of our friendships shifting over time that people do come in and out of our lives, and people we imagine will always be at the core of our friendships drift away or we drift away from them. And I think that she's right to point out that's not necessarily bad.
That's a kind of natural evolution. think that what she's also pointing to, which we found is that if you want somebody to remain your friend, that requires some active nurturing of the friendship and that sometimes we can accidentally let go or lose. Right? So you see much, particularly men, like young adult men who start settling down with a partner.
Maybe they have kids they just are so caught up in work life and family life that they just don't have any time to talk to their old friends or even their current friends. And those are the people who turn around 10 years later and say, I don't have any friends. And so I think what we want to do is try helping people.
Pay attention to that and realize that that, that activity, that what we're calling social fitness is a practice that you want to keep
Robert Waldinger: you don't have to
Do it with everybody who's ever been in your life, but you want to do it with the people who you still want to hold onto as your friends.
Srini: Yeah. What in the world is the trajectory that led you to studying this of all things? Obviously, this is such a fundamental part of our lives, but how in the world did you end up doing this work? What's been the trajectory that got you here?
Robert Waldinger: Ha. I have always been interested in this sort of experience of being human. And I was interested in history, like an undergraduate, I studied the history of science and I was really interested in what made people do wacky things. Like what, what made people burn witches in Salem, Massachusetts.
Like, how, what was that? Or what? cooperate with the Nazis, like doctors who'd taken an oath to do no harm. What was that about? And so what I really began to realize was I was fascinated with why people did what they did. Human motivation. And when I went to med school, the thing that I loved was psychiatry was the field that was interesting in why people did what they did and what people's inner lives were like.
And so then when. I was asked to inherit this study of lives, of the whole life going over 85 years. It was like, yes. And what I did was my predecessor, George Mallian, took me out to lunch one day and said, how would you like to inherit the study of adult development? And I took a deep breath and said, I don't know.
And then he said, come and take a look at some of our files. , I sat down with a couple of big fat files of lives, like starting in 1938 and going up to the two thousands, when this was happening. And I just found it wonderful and surprising and I realized I'm really interested in this. And so that's what kind of made me say yes and say, yes, I will devote my.
You know, what I have of it is left to this big, messy complicated study of human beings.
Srini: So I gotta ask a silly question from just a practical standpoint, and you're talking about 80 year study like, and what started, before the existence of the internet technology and computers, how the hell do you organize all this information?
Robert Waldinger: Oh my gosh. So it's all on pieces of paper. We have a file room, , with. Hundreds of file drawers that contain these pieces of paper, many of which are crumbling now because it began in 1938. So, we got a grant to scan all these pieces of paper. We now have hundreds of thousands of pieces of paper scanned onto into digital searchable PDFs, and it all fits on a thumb drive and what it means, which we love, is that you.
Search for things that we didn't even know we had. So one of my research assistants found that we had asked people in the 1940s, have you ever had a concussion? And it turns out that 46% of the Harvard College undergrads who we studied had a serious concussion with loss of consciousness.
Cuz that was before helmets and protective gear.
You played sports, you got knocked on the head, you got knocked. And then you got up and you went, you did, you did it again. And so it's just one of those surprising findings that we now know we have because we were able to now have scannable, searchable material that we didn't have before.
Srini: So how did you like to keep track of all these people? Because again, this takes us back to the, pre-existence of the internet where, it wasn't probably as easy to say, okay, I'm gonna follow this person from 1939 until now.
Robert Waldinger: No. And we didn't expect to,
Robert Waldinger: most, most longitudinal studies fall apart before the 10 year mark.
Robert Waldinger: because they
Do, cuz too many people drop out. We lose funding all that. It is so unlikely that we'd still be going 85 years later. The founders of this study would be completely dumbfounded that we were still talking about the same people and studying the same people.
I lost track. What
Srini: Yeah, yeah . just, exactly. To your point, like, how in the world have you actually kept track of this? What has, how you have sustained it?
Robert Waldinger: a reason why we've been able to sustain it is that we've been really attentive to keep these people involved with us. So we send them birthday cards, we send them thank you notes when they complete a questionnaire and send it back to us. We stay involved and we keep reminding them.
Nobody can replace you in this study, and you are giving a precious gift to the world, to science by being part of this study. And so what we do is we're really active in reminding people how important their participation is.
We're not a hands-off study, so like sometimes people come to us and say, I'm in trouble.
I need a therapist, or I need a doctor, or, and we help them find.
Srini: Wow. Let's get into the book. You opened the book by saying, in a 2000 survey, millennials were asked about their most important life goals. 76% said that becoming rich was their number one goal. 50% said a major goal was to become famous more than a decade later, after millennials had spent more time as adults.
Similar questions were asked again in a pair of surveys. FAME was now lower on the list, but the top goals again included things like making. Having a successful career and becoming debt free. So naturally, I think all of us at that age, if you asked us what you wanted to be, I probably would've probably said probably the same thing.
And I remember, I very distinctly remember I had this CFO to start up that I worked at, and he was like, she, he's like, why do you want to have a lot of money? And I was like, so I can buy Ferrari and mansions? And he looked at me, he said, no. He said, do you know what money gives you? He said, money buys you time.
That always stayed with me because I realized how right he was that almost all the things that I spend money nowadays are things that allow me to pay somebody else to spend their time doing something that I don't want to do, so that I can spend my time doing something I want to do. And I realized how Right, he was.
I was like, wow, you're right, I was like, you can't even drive a Ferrari in a residential neighborhood for more than 20 miles an hour. What the hell would be the point of that?
Robert Waldinger: And that's, he was really wise, because that is the truth of it. That, that it buys you time, it buys you. Opportunity. Particularly, a thing they did a study of spending your discretionary income and whether you're happier if you buy material things or you pay for experiences, and they found that people are happier who pay for experiences and they're happier for longer than the people who buy material.
And it's similar, if you pay for someone else's time to help you with tasks that you don't want to do, you're happier.
Srini: Yeah. This is why I don't put together IKEA furniture despite what people say about the IKEA effect.
Robert Waldinger: Exactly. Exactly. Exactly. We get, you got those messages as a young man that a Ferrari was gonna do it for you. Think of all messages we get all
Srini: Okay. Yeah.
Robert Waldinger: media. Buy the Ferrari use this face cream and you'll always look young and beautiful, whatever it is, buy these things.
So if you have the money to buy all these things, that's what's gonna make a good life. It turns out that's not true.
Srini: Here's the thing, the message didn't land. When I was in my twenties, it didn't change until I got out of business school, graduated into a second recession and was forced to reevaluate my life. And this is something I wonder you. Maybe millennials now are more self-aware than people were when I was at that age, cuz, we didn't have access to this just abundance of personal development knowledge that's freely available on the internet.
But I remember like telling somebody that almost everything that I talk about on this show, if somebody had talked to me about any of this when I was 20 something, I was like, this all sounds like a bunch of new age nonsense.
Robert Waldinger: I know.
Srini: So why is that? What is that? Why does it. Life experience for us to become so much more self-aware about the things that are truly important.
Robert Waldinger: That is, that's such an important question and people have tried studying it. Can you speed up the acquisition of wisdom? And it turns out you probably can't. You can do some. But a lot of it requires experience and so it's lived
experience. I think that really convinces us.
Now, I will say that some of my Zen buddies, so I practice zen, and that means spending a lot of time on the cushion, meditating. That is a way, including when you're young, that you can get a lot of experience of some of these things, like the truth that everything's always changing. truth that most of what I think is just totally made.
And this is of no consequence, right? Most of the things I worry about are silly. Like you can see that repeatedly sitting on a meditation cushion and that can convince you even in your twenties, oh, there's a lot of stuff that I could let go of cuz it's just not that important. But otherwise, most of us living our lives take longer to get these messages into our bones where we really say, oh, I get it.
The Ferrari is not gonna make me.
Robert Waldinger: takes time, it
Srini: I've had billionaires here. People have accomplished extraordinary things, and the unanimous theme is that this won't make you happy. I think with Jim McKelvey, who was the co-founder of Square with Jack Twitter, he said, money just makes you more of what you are. So if you're an , you will just become a bigger one.
But the funny thing is that you always think to yourself, yeah, dude, you're a billionaire. That's easy for you to say. I know deep down, every one of us is yeah, but it would still be.
Robert Waldinger: But we, it turns out they're unhappier. When we do study, we study people at different wealth levels and there've been several studies on this. People aren't happier. And so that, that's just an empirical fact. And so we can have fantasies that it must be better, on the other side of the income divide.
It must be better if you're a billionaire, but it turns out it's not. This doesn't mean it's worse either. It's, as we say in my field, orthogonal, it's unrelated to happiness that much, having your basic material needs met. Yes. That's related to happiness. They have this study of, if you make less than 75,000 a year annual house on hold income, you're less happy.
But that once you get above 75, the, and you make more and more money, your happiness doesn't go up very much.
Srini: Yeah. So a thing that you say is the contrary to what many people might think, its not career achievement or exercise or a healthy diet. Don't get us wrong, these things matter a lot, but one thing continually demonstrates its broaden, enduring importance, good relationships, and if we were to actually put these in a prioritization hierarchy in terms of the way we prioritize our lives, The funny thing is career achievement probably comes at the very top from the time that we are in school.
That is the foundation. Particularly if you grew up in an Indian family, you're a doctor, so you know this better than anybody. It's Doc, straight a's Doctor, lawyer, engineer, good life. That's the path.
Robert Waldinger: Doctor, lawyer,
Engineer, or failure.
Robert Waldinger: four
Srini: Exactly. Yeah. No, exactly. But that's the thing. Like I, I think that it's not any, secret to us that we don't know that these relationships matter.
But, let's actually go, we're gonna do this in a bit of a weird order. Like it's hard to do this linearly, I've realized. But let's start with education in particular. Like in the classroom, one thing I realized, nobody teaches us how to make.
It's just you think like it is such a basic skill.
Nobody teaches you how to interact with the opposite sex or the same sex, whatever. It's if you are romantically interested in somebody, like these are just fundamental, basic skills for our survival are untaught
In schools. So what would you do if you were tasked with going into a kindergarten classroom and said, Bob, we want you to teach kindergartners how to make friends.
Robert Waldinger: I would do just what you're saying. I would teach them those things and they're starting to do it. There's this whole area called learning. . And it's a whole set of different programs that are just what you're talking about. It's like teaching kids, little kids. This is what feelings are.
This is what anger's like. This is what happens when you get mad at your friend. This is what it's like when your friend gets mad at you. How can you deal with that? This is what happens, when you're upset. What if you sit still and breathe quietly for two minutes? when you teach kids these.
Systematically in school, they do better in school, they're happier, they get in. They don't get into trouble nearly as often. They don't get kicked out of school. There's less juvenile delinquency, there's less drug use. They've done these mega of many studies across the world, if you do such teaching of socio-emotional learning, kids do better.
That's what I would invest in. The problem is that many families get scared. They say, you're gonna try teaching my kids values. You're gonna try taking them away from my family values, or what I think is core. And so some families can get threatened by the idea of about feelings and how to handle feelings.
If you can get families over that hump, it has gigantic benefits for family life, for school life, and for the world.
Srini: Let's talk about this. Biological aspects of this because a thing you is to say that human beings require warm relationships as no touchy feely idea. It's hard facts. Scientific studies have told us, repeatedly, human beings need nutrition. We need exercise, we need purpose, and we need each other.
Positive relationships are essential to human beings. So talk to me about the true, like just from a medical standpoint, what are the effects like of relationships and, the necessity of this?
Robert Waldinger: We're still working on it. So we've been spending the last decade in our study trying to determine how do relationships matter? Like, how do they enter our bodies and actually change our bodies? And the best reigning hypothesis. For which there's more and more data is that it must do with stress and stress regulation.
So if you think about it, upsetting, things happen all day long, stressful things happen, right? when something stressful happens to me, I can literally feel that my body starts to rev up. Excuse me, my, my heart rate starts to go up. I might even start to sweat. I might start to ruminate about it.
If I can come home and have somebody at home to talk to about this or have somebody to call who is a good listener, and I could talk about how upsetting this thing that happened during my day, I can literally feel my body calm down again. And what we know is that the human organism was meant to go into fight or flight.
To meet a challenge, but then when the challenge is gone, you know when the grizzly bear isn't there anymore, we're meant to go back to a baseline equilibrium. What we find is that if you don't have anybody to talk to, you don't have anybody to help you with negative emotions, with tremendous worry and rumination that your body can stay in a kind of chronic fight or flight mode, and that what that means then is that you have higher levels of inflammation throughout your body that breaks down multiple body systems, higher levels of stress, hormones circulating in your blood.
And so we think what relationships do for us is that they are stress regulators and that when we don't have them, are chronically distressed.
Srini: Okay. So it's funny, like I, when you were saying that, I couldn't help think Yeah. But what about the people in our family who drive us insane
I was thinking like, God, being around my mom doesn't decrease my stress. It increases my stress. And it's funny because we've watched her change a lot over the last month or two.
My sister just had a. and we're seeing a side of her that we've never seen and we expected it to cause we saw it with my grandmother as well. My dad told me and he said, go look at your grandmother and notice how different she is with you than she is with your mom and how sweet she is and how, warm she is.
And. .Yeah, and we're seeing it and we're oh, this is so great. You saved us.
Robert Waldinger: Yeah.
Srini: but talk to me about that because I don't think I'm only who looks at family and says, oh, you know what? These people are driving me crazy at moments.
Robert Waldinger: Yes. And they do. They do drive . There's always. somebody in our family who drives us crazy. That's just the way families work. That's the way close relationships work cuz you don't choose your family, in most, you don't you're born into your family and we are different from each other.
That's just a given. And so I think what we know is that you don't have to. Close to every member of your family. If someone drives you crazy, you can take them in smaller doses if it's possible. And we know that some relationships are really toxic and it's time to step away and distance ourselves.
That is the truth of it. But many relationships are ones we can work out the differe. . So there's a lot to be said for managing disagreements, for working out the differences because it makes the relationship stronger. So we would argue don't walk away from a relationship just because there's some trouble or people annoy you.
See if there are ways to make it better, and if there aren't ways to make it better, then see if there are ways to keep a friendly distant. But the underlying messages don't hold on to grudges because grudges really wear away our own wellbeing.
I remember reading this line in the Subura book, inter Engineering, and this just had always stayed with me. He said, never leave a conversation having said something you will regret light later. And it was just, and he tells this beautiful story about a girl who was yelling at her brother when they were being taken to a concentration camp because he forgot his shoes, and then they were separated at the next station and she never saw him again.
And she said, from that point forward, she made a commitment to herself that she would never leave the sight of a conversation having said something she would regret.
Robert Waldinger: Oh yeah, or at least circle back and say, I regret saying that I'm sorry. Can we talk about it? Whatever it might be. But to, it's off a, that old maxim about marriage don't go to bed angry. And It is not always possible to avoid going to bed angry.
But it's the same thing. It's try. Try working things out before they fester, before they grow.
Srini: W let's talk about this in terms of the life stages that you defined, which is, adolescence, young adulthood, the next phase, middle-aged and then, being elderly. How do people's perceptions of the importance of friendship and their overall happiness change with age?
Cause I feel, at least in my experience. I'm actually happier as I've gotten older and I feel like my mood is a lot more stable. I feel like I was just on this emotional roller coaster, which I, when I read the line where you said, from the outside, adolescents can look like a bundle of contradictions to a middle-aged parent.
It may look like an invasion of the body snatchers, that once an adorable adoring child is now a moody teen who at one moment is childlike and clingy, and the next moment is disdainful. Not all. And I remember thinking, yeah. I'm like, I turned into the biggest on the planet who thought my parents were, horrible people.
Robert Waldinger: Yeah. And that's what happens. Think about how different you are now than you were back then. And you're right?
We get happier as we get older. On average, as a species, get happier starting in middle age, as documented scientifically. But I think the one clear thing is that what's important to us changes.
And so what's important in relationships changes. You probably want different things from your friends now than you did 20 years ago.
And that, that's okay. That those that what we want evolves not always. Certainly, one of the things we always want is a sense. That we are safe, that we can be ourselves with a few close people, that there are people around who have our backs and I'll help us.
But then beyond that I'm finding, for example, that I want friendships where there's more mutual give and take. we don't grandstand, we don't just listen to each other and think of the next thing we wanna say, but that we really are much more engaged in a mutual creative conversation where we surprise each other and ourselves that's more interesting to me now than it used to be.
Srini: Now. . There's one line that really stood out to me in the book where you say The fewer moments we must look forward to in life, the more valuable they become. Past grievances and prec. Preoccupations often dissipate. And what's left is what we had before us, and it made me think back to this conversation I had with Frank Osky, who was the director of the Zen Hospice Project, and I said, Frank, I.
We have this huge fear of being alone. That was like my greatest fear in life. And I said, it's not anymore because I had two bad relationships. I said, you know what I'm scared of? I'm scared that my parents won't be alive by the time I get married or have kids. And this is what he said to me. Take a listen.
mediaboard_sounds: We spend all this time imagining we're gonna get ready for our dying. And I think it's a kind of absurd idea to imagine that at the time of our dying, we will have the strength of body, the emotional stability, the mental clarity to do the work of a lifetime. This is an absurd gamble. So we should do this work now, and that includes those of us who are not dying, who are with our el, our aging parents, for example.
Be with them now. Tell 'em you love them. Now, waiting is full of expectation, waiting for the next moment to arrive. We miss this one, waiting for the moment of dying. We miss all the moments in between. So that's a great thing. Hold death out there as shine, a light on it, so to speak, and hold it out there as a way of reminding you to attend to what most matters.
Srini: I, wouldn't get your perspective on this because I still think I have that fear despite knowing that granted, that conversation with Frank changed my behavior and relationship with my parents dramatically that, I started going home and having dinner with them every on Sunday, and I my sister the other night, Mentioned to me that this is actually really special.
She said, we're all together as a family and this is a rare opportunity. Getting to spend time with my nephew. She has a four month maternity leave. My friends are like, you're not gonna move to wherever you're going next. I was like, no, I'm gonna stay here for a little while because I'm not gonna get this chance back.
Robert Waldinger: Yeah. Yeah. I love that and I love what he said to you. it is, I'm a Zen practitioner, so this is exactly. Where I live in my, in my inner life, in my spiritual life. And I think you're right that he's saying let death be the north star that we can say, okay, time is short and these times are precious.
This is a bit of an aside, but a Spanish laur company made a commercial, I
Srini: seen it. It's beautiful.
Robert Waldinger: And isn't it wonderful?
Robert Waldinger: an, its oh my God, we don't have that much time left. And this is what you've done with your family, with your parents, and we all must do this because the time goes so quickly.
And it's not like we're gonna all make it all happen in the end. It's right now, or.
Srini: So naturally, that raises a question that I've asked many people and that is navigating probably what is in my mind, the most profound and terrifying loss, which is losing a parent. I and I feel like there's no self-help book for that one.
Robert Waldinger: right? There isn't a self-help book for that. . I think what we're faced with is a sense, first, of the finiteness of our own lives when we lose a parent. If you think about it, parents have been there from before we had memory. So we've never known a world without our parents in that world.
And so it rocks us to our foundation. A parent dies. My, its my God, how can this be? How can the world not? this person is in it. And so it's a huge existential experience to lose a parent besides just missing this human being who you love and have all kinds of complicated feelings about and such a long history with.
So it's absolutely. norm that it is an event of major proportions for almost all of us, no matter what kind of relationship we had with our parents.
Srini: , but people do recover. Like, they get back to living. They get back to being who they are. I remember my friend Matt's mom, she said, she's not a day goes by that you don't think about them even after they're gone.
Robert Waldinger: That's right. . right. sitting here with pictures behind me on a bookshelf, and some of those pictures are of my parents. My parents have been gone for 30 plus years. But I see them whenever I walk into this room. I think about them every day. they are a part of me. And, I hear them like, in my voice.
Now as I'm talking to you, I hear my parents at different strains of their tone, different phrases they use. It's how we live in those who come after us.
Srini: Wow. Let's talk about another kind of relationship, which is an intimate relationship. You say that romance is something that most of us.
Hope for, not only for sexual satisfaction, but also for the intimacy of another's touch, the sharing of day, today's joys and sorrows and the meaning that comes with witnessing each other's experiences.
For some of us, romantic love feels like an essential part of life, which I made me wonder, are there people who don't feel that it's an essential part of life?
Robert Waldinger: There are people, a thing we know, is that people vary in the extent that they want a romantic, intimate connection, even that they want a sexual connection. There are people. Who are not very sexual, who are not very interested in sex. They often, it's a minority, but they often feel like outliers cuz so much of, most of us are driven by sex for a lot of our lives, right?
But some people don't yearn for that. Really and some people don't yearn for an intimate connection. Some
solitary. are monastic traditions, as we all know, that where people go to live out their lives in solitude or in a non-intimate community. that's really okay.
That's another way to go through this human.
Srini: So I remember reading in some book that people who are not married, intend to die sooner. And I'm thinking to myself, I'm 45. I was like, , that just took another decade off my life. And then I had a conversation with my friend Eric Barker, and he said, The biggest problem with most of those studies is they commit survivor bias.
He said they only study happy marriages. He's the truth is an unhappy marriage. Doesn't necessarily lead to that. But talk to me about that because I come from an Indian family, so you can only imagine being my age and unmarried as the bane of my family's existence.
Robert Waldinger: I mean you, of course you must be
Srini: Yeah. They've given up at this point, so
Robert Waldinger: I come from a Jewish family and it's about as bad.
Srini: yeah, so I hear.
Robert Waldinger: Yeah. I got married when I was 35 and I think my parents were really worried cuz it had been because it was long and 35, 35 years ago was a long time, was a, was an old age to be married at.
First, a thing we know is that it is never too late. So we had people in our study who found love in their sixties and seventies for the first. They found good, solid, stable relationships much later in life. There is no time where it's too late.
That, I think is a message worth getting out there to people because we can imagine that, oh, I, this, the window has closed, this is passed me by, our study says, no, that's not the.
Srini: Yeah, I remember I had my friend Jenny Tates here, who wrote a book titled Sing How to Be Single and Happy, and she said, Zinni, she's like, distressing about this, make it any better. I was like, hell no. And she's exactly. She's what if you lived the life that will to live if this person was already in it?
And that always stayed with me.
Robert Waldinger: Yeah. Yeah. Because you do want to say, okay, what do I want? What's here? Now I can do that, that I love to do that, that feels meaningful to me. And then if someone comes who wants to share, that's gonna be great. and if they don't, you will still be. living this life because this is the only life you've got.
As your zen guest said, these moments, these are all we have right now. So to say I'm gonna, it's, life is really gonna get better. It's really gonna start when I have an intimate partner that is letting life pass you by.
Srini: one story struck me from the book where you were talking to this older couple and they were talking about their fears when it came to the relationship, and the man said that he hoped he would die first so that he wouldn't have to spend his remaining time without her.
Robert Waldinger: Yeah.
Srini: so talk to me about that.
Like, how does that change people, like when they lose somebody that they've loved their entire life, like when they lose a spouse? Because I'd imagine that much kind of, to, your point about parents, maybe it's a little bit different because I've seen friends who got divorced and I remember talking to my friend about this and he said, you get married and suddenly the next 30 years are clear, you have a vision.
And he said the most traumatic thing is that the entire vision gets wiped out.
Robert Waldinger: That's right. That's right. Because what happens is we grow attached to a partner and the sense is that's it, this person is gonna be with me. So when I think, who am I gonna have dinner with tonight? It's always the same, almost always the same person. And there's something so comforting about that, right?
And where are, where we are gonna be when we're in our seventies and eighties, if we live long enough? The sense is, The plan is, We're gonna be together. And so I understand what your friend is saying that all falls away. That sense of a certain future falls away.
Now, in truth, our futures are never certain. I might die tomorrow and leave my wife or vice versa. But the, what we do is rest in the secure fantasy. that we know what the future is probably and that can afford us some comfort. Not a bad thing. I think what happens when people react so differently when they lose a spouse, depends on how adaptable they are, how they can change the set.
Similarly with divorce, when suddenly the plan is off and it's not gonna happen the way you thought it was. How easily can you find New Avenue? How easily can you adapt? And all of us are different in our adaptability and we differ at different points in our lives.
Srini: Yeah. There's one other piece of this that you talked about, which is this concept of corrective experiences, where you say corrective experiences aren't just a matter of luck. Opportunities to shift our view of the world are arriving all the time. Most of them simply pass us by. We're often too tunneled in our own expectations and personal opinions tell the subtle realities of these opportunities to penetrate.
And so let me thinking. conflict with families that, never gets resolved, or friendships that come to an end. I've had some very tough experiences, a byproduct of running this business where I had to choose between what was good for the business and friendship. And I said, I gotta choose what's right for the business, even if it means it's gonna damage the friendship.
And those people never forgave me that.
Robert Waldinger: I think it depends on the relationship because sometimes we do have to choose work over matters. I've had to fire people who were my teachers, when I was in a particular position. Oh, so painful. They did not hold grudges. We talked it through. I said, I hate to do this, but here's our budget.
I must let you. . And I think depending on the relationship, sometimes those things can be worked through. Sometimes they can't. I'd like to say, gee, if the relationship is good enough, the friendship won't fall apart when you must make a choice that's uncomfortable for your friend. But that isn't always the case.
Unfortunately. These are just the. The complexities of a life where we have competing priorities and competing interests. Sometimes I must, I had to choose between my child and work, or between my child and a friend, and the choice was clear, but it was hard and I lost as a consequence.
Srini: Wow. Yeah. One thing that you mentioned, I know you acknowledged this in the book, is there's a bit of bias in the study because we're talking about, predominantly well off Harvard graduates. But you do acknowledge that this expand, study expanded, right? They talked to me about two things.
One is what you've noticed here throughout the study common across cultures and how does it differ across culture? and then, when we're talking about, income demographics or demographics in general, how does that.
Robert Waldinger: Yeah. from the beginning, we had a second study that started with boys from Boston's, not just the poorest neighborhoods, but most troubled families. So we had these two groups, one very privileged guys from Harvard College, but then some of Boston's most disadvantaged. Kids. And so we studied both.
So we had such difference in social class, in economic wellbeing, and a lot of the people from the inner city group were from immigrant, families from Eastern Europe, some from the Middle East. Everybody was Caucasian, everybody was white. And then we brought in women. So we've had some, quite a bit of diversity in that regard.
What we don't have are people of color, so what we've tried to do, for example, in the book, when we present the science and the big findings, we don't present findings if they haven't been confirm. in other populations with di more diverse groups, right? So if it's a, if it's a finding that we just found, but no other study has found, we don't present that because no one study can prove anything, particularly in such research.
What you gotta have is different studies pointing in the same direction, and then you can have confidence in the fact that you're putting out there to the. .
Robert Waldinger: Does that
Srini: that it does. So what are the similarities and differences that you noticed across culture?
Robert Waldinger: Across socioeconomic levels, found that lack of education associated with earlier death that the inner city men lived on average 10 years shorter lives than the Harvard. and what we found was that 25 of the inner city men out of four hundred and six, four hundred fifty-six so 25 out of 456 actually graduated from college.
Very few of these people even went to college, but 25 who graduated from college lived just as long as the Harvard. and it wasn't about their high, their college diplomas, it was about their education. Cuz what we think is that, first, growing up in a way that you got the support you needed to go to college and stay in college and finish, and then the education.
Allowed you to get that information about what would keep you healthy. That was coming out in the sixties and seventies, like that. Tobacco is really bad for you. Alcoholism is really terrible. Obesity is really bad. is really good. That those truths were something that the people were more likely to see sooner because of their access to this information.
So those were two of the biggest, those were the biggest differences we found between the groups socioeconomically. The other thing we found was that the people in the lower socioeconomic group were more likely to stay local. They were more likely to live in large family groups, and that was a good thing.
Whereas the Harvard guys from. distance, often moved around more for their work and lived more in smaller nuclear families and less in big family groups. And so there's a way in which the social class benefits, the cultural benefits of living in big family groups weren't so available to the Harvard men.
Srini: Wow. You say toward the very end of the. That humans are not born with the biological need to read and write, though the skills are now fundamental to society, we're not born with the need to do math, though the modern world would not exist without it. We are, however, born with a need to connect with other people because of this need for connection is because this need for connection is fundamental to a flourishing life.
We believe that social fitness should be taught to children and be a central consideration in public policy, right along exercise, diet, and other health recommendations. We talked about education. Where's where is this going to happen? In public policy? In a world that just seems to be currently on fire?
Robert Waldinger: It is very difficult to enact public that. further such education because of the worry about treading on a family's cultural values, right? What if we teach about feelings and you come from a family that believes that stuff is a waste of time and you just should focus on reading, writing, and arithmetic, right?
What if your family says, I don't want my kid being taught that subversive stuff or tolerance for differences. , which we know actually helps us all and makes kids more successful. But what if your family doesn't want you to learn that stuff? So that's where we really have to change the culture in several ways.
Some of this may be by showing the health and the economic benefits some of such education and training that's there for us that we can for our kids if only we'll,
Srini: Wow. I have two final questions for you. As somebody who is the poster child for this study, how it has affected your own relationships with family and friends to have spent your life dedicated to this?
Robert Waldinger: Yeah. It has. I'm, I've spent my whole career at Harvard, right? And, so Harvard is all about achievement. And I could spend all my time checking things off on my to-do list, sitting and editing one more paper. And what the study has made me see is that if I don't take care of my relat, , it's not gonna happen.
My relationships are gonna go away. And so what I do now is I say, okay, who do I need to see? Which of my friends have I not seen a while And I really wanna reach out to? And so I'm now much more regularly reaching out to people saying, can we go for a walk? Can we have coffee? Can we do something together?
And that's a change. and it's a been a hugely helpful change in my life. I also, it made me spend a lot more time with my kids. realized, I don't want to be this, Harvard professor whose kids never knew him, and so what if I accomplished a lot at work if I raised kids who never knew their dad?
I never felt close to him, so all of this my study has really changed the way I prioritize my own life activities.
Srini: Yeah. It's funny you say that. My best friend and I, because of Covid, even though we were both in Colorado, we just didn't see each other very much because he had a baby and. I think a couple of months back, I told him, Hey, I'm doing this weekly podcast segment. I was like, do you want to co-host it with me?
It'll be an excuse for us to actually connect every week, and it's amazing to have that on the calendar, even though its work related. I was like, look, yeah, we will, we'll benefit work-wise. But I was like, we also get to talk to each other and it gives us a reason to talk to each other every week.
Robert Waldinger: Exactly. My co-author Mark Schultz, who I wrote this book with, he and I have a phone call every week at noon, every Friday at noon. And we've had that for 25 years. He lives in Pennsylvania. I live in Massa. But it's, and we talk to each Yes. About work. We wrote this book together.
We write papers together, but we talk about our lives, our kids and so it's been an essential part of our relationship that we have this weekly time together.
Srini: Wow. Wow. It had just been absolutely beautiful and breathtaking. So I have one final question for you, which is how we finish all of our interviews at the unmistakable creative. What do you think it is that makes somebody, or something unmistakable.
Robert Waldinger: that say that again. That makes
Srini: What do you think it is that makes somebody or something unmistakable?
Robert Waldinger: somebody or something unmistakable, I guess their engagement. with life, with their engagement with the world, their engagement with us, right? So, if somebody is a really engaged person in this conversation or in this activity, we know them. We see them, we experience how they are in the world and what they bring to the world.
And so we think the quality of engagement with the world is something that makes us. Makes us more aware of somebody's presence.
Srini: Beautiful. I can't thank you enough for taking the time to join us and share your story, your wisdom, and your insights with our listeners. Where can people determine more about you, your work, the book, and everything?
Robert Waldinger: The book is at a website called the goodlife book.com. The, I have a robert waldinger.com website and we have a. A study website, it's development study, all one word, adult development study.org. You can find some of our papers in there and descriptions of the study. And so, by all means, check us out.
Srini: Amazing. And for everybody listening, we will wrap the show with that bu.