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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Bob: Absolutely. It's great to be here.
Srini: So, Bob, I'm curious, what makes you unique?
Bob: Well, I think what makes me unique is my ability to think outside the box when it comes to problem-solving. I'm constantly seeking out new ways to approach challenges and come up with innovative solutions.
Robert Waldinger: I am very happy to be here.
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 not cool. 'Cause I liked school. But I was also one of the theater kids. I loved acting in plays and I actually was 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 both felt like an outsider and had a little tribe of people who I felt cared about me and I cared about them.
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 still 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 the 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 has to do with creating something together. And I think teams, I think sports teams often have that kind of camaraderie because you're doing something together 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 there's something about building toward a performance of a play or a musical that's just so bonding. Because of course, there are so many mistakes and jokes and gaffes and all these things that you then get to reminisce about. It was my favorite thing during my adolescence.
Srini: No, I don't think so.
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 a lot as a kid. I moved after my freshman year in high school, and I always thought about the fact that this just had such a disruptive impact on my friendships in high school. And it's funny 'cause 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 had a really nice time. It was just interesting. But I wonder if 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 for leaving to another, particularly after freshman year in high school.
Robert Waldinger: Yeah. Yeah. Oh, that must have been rough. So I think it varies. It varies depending on the kind of person you are. Some kids, no matter who you are, find moving hard. But some kids are just better at making new friends and having an easier time. So for those kids, it's not devastating to move. It's hard, but then you settle in, and you find new friends in the next place at the next school, right?
For some kids, it's really traumatic and 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, being a somewhat socially okay kid, had a better experience.
Robert Waldinger: figured out ways to talk to people, to reach out to new people when you moved to a new place.
Srini: It's no coincidence that I've built a career that ensures I'll never stop meeting new people.
Robert Waldinger: Yeah. Exactly. Exactly. But that doesn't mean it wasn't hard for you. It's just that I think you were probably one of those kids who had the inner resources to meet the challenge of moving.
Srini: Yeah. When we had Lydia Denworth here, she was talking about how our friendships change throughout our lives. People move away, and people's lives change. I want to bring back a clip from my conversation with her. Take a listen.
Robert Waldinger: Yeah.
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 life or their work. And the longer things go when they haven't seen someone, the less connected they feel, the less up-to-date 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 one of the things 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 it." 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
Srini: What do you make of that? You're the guy who studied this probably more in-depth than almost anybody.
Srini: The thing is, 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 her bridesmaids was 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 twenty years after we graduated. I noticed she has these friends that have been there in her life since they were in sixth grade, and they're still friends to this day. And I think about my closest friends, and they're the ones I 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 of twenty-plus years together. And as somebody who grew up in one place, for so much of your life, I wonder how that affects your own friendships and whether have you seen the differences between 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 I can argue with my friend Dennis about something that happened in third grade, 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're like, it just doesn't happen. And so he will always be my friend, even though we're different and even though we annoy each other because this shared history is something that no one else has.
Srini: Yeah. What in the world is the trajectory that led you to study 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: You don't have to do it with everyone who has 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: So I have to ask a silly question from a practical standpoint. You're talking about an 80-year study, and what started prior to the existence of the internet and technology, how do you organize all this information?
Srini: So, how did you keep track of all these people? Because, again, this takes us back to the pre-existence of the internet when 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: Ha. I was always interested in this sort of experience of being human. And I was interested in history; as an undergraduate, I studied the history of science and I was really interested in what made people do wacky things. Like what made people burn witches in Salem, Massachusetts? Or what caused people to 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 that psychiatry was the field that was interested 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 whole lives going over 85 years, it was like, yes. And 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
Robert Waldinger: Most, most longitudinal studies fall apart before the 10-year mark.
Robert Waldinger: Because they do, because too many people drop out. We lose funding and 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 kept track of this? What has, and how have you sustained it?
Robert Waldinger: One of the reasons why we've been able to sustain it is that we've been really attentive to keeping these people involved with us. So we send them birthday cards, and 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 them in this study, and you are giving a precious gift to the world, and 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 sometimes people come to us and say, "I'm in trouble. I need a therapist, or I need a doctor," and we help them find one.
Robert Waldinger: And that's, he was really wise because that is the truth of it. That, it buys you time, it buys you the opportunity. Particularly, one of the things they did was 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 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 going to do it for you. Think of all the messages we get all
Srini: Okay, yeah.
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 and 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 would've said probably the same thing - rich. Yeah.
And I remember, I very distinctly remember I had this CFO at a startup that I worked at, and he was like, "Why do you want to have a lot of money?" And I was like, "So I can buy Ferraris and mansions?" And he looked at me, he said, "No. Do you know what money gives you? 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 on nowadays are things that allow
Robert Waldinger: Media often tells us that we should buy the Ferrari, use this face cream, and we'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 supposed to make a good life. It turns out that's not true.
Srini: So why is that? What is that? Why does it give us life experience for us to become so much more self-aware about the things that are truly important?
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 about. Maybe millennials now are more self-aware than people were when I was that age, because we didn't have access to this just abundance of personal development knowledge that's freely available on the internet. But I remember 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.
Robert Waldinger: That is, that's such an important question and people have tried to study 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, the truth that most of what I think is just totally made up and of no consequence, right? Most of the things I worry about are silly. Like you can see that over and over again 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 'cause 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: It takes time, it takes experience.
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 Jim McKelvey, who was the co-founder of Square with Jack Dorsey, said, money just makes you more of what you are. So if you're an asshole, you'll 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 thinking, yeah, but it would still be nice.
Srini: Yeah. So one of the things that you say is contrary to what many people might think, it's 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 profound, 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: But we, it turns out they're not happier. When we do study, we study people at different wealth levels and there've been a lot of 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. It doesn't mean it's worse either. It's, as we say in my field, orthogonal, it's not related 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 household income, you're less happy. But once you get above 75,000, and you make more and more money, your happiness doesn't go up very much.
Robert Waldinger: Doctor, lawyer, engineer, or failure.
Robert Waldinger: For
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 friends. It's just such a basic skill. Nobody teaches you how to interact with the opposite sex or same sex, whatever. It's if you are romantically interested in somebody these are just fundamental, basic skills for our survival that are not taught in schools. So what would you do if you were basically tasked with going into a kindergarten classroom and said, "Bob, we want you to teach kindergartners how to make friends."
Srini: Let's talk about the biological aspects of this because one of the things you say is to not treat this as a touchy-feely idea. It's hard facts. Scientific studies have told us, again and again, that human beings need nutrition, we need exercise, we need purpose, and we need each other. Positive relationships are essential to human well-being. So, talk to me about the truth, from a medical standpoint, what are the effects of relationships and the necessity of this?
Robert Waldinger: We're still working on that. So we've been spending the last 10 years in our study trying to find out how relationships matter. Like how do they get into our bodies and actually change our bodies? And the best-reigning hypothesis for which there's more and more data is that it has to do with stress and stress regulation.
So if you think about it, upsetting things happen all day long, and stressful things happen, right? When something stressful happens to me, I can literally feel that 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's a good listener, and I can talk about how upsetting this thing was 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
Srini: Okay, so it's funny, like I, when you were saying that, I couldn't help but think, "Yeah, but what about people in our family who drive us insane?" Yeah, so yeah. 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 baby and we're seeing a side of her that we've never seen and we expected it, '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 like, "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 the only one who looks at family and says, "Oh, you know what? These people are driving me crazy at times."
Robert Waldinger: Yes. And they do. They do drive us crazy. 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 because you don't choose your family, in most cases, 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 be 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 differences. 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 distance. But the underlying message is don't hold on to grudges because grudges
Srini: Yeah. I remember reading this line in the Subura book, entitled Engineering, and this has always stayed with me. He said, never leave a conversation having said something you'll regret lightly later. And it 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 too, it's off from that old maxim about marriage don't go to bed angry. And that's not always possible to avoid going to bed angry. But it's the same thing. It's trying. Try to work things out before they fester, before they grow.
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 into digital searchable PDFs, and it all fits on a thumb drive what it means, which we love, is that you can 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. This 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 it again. And so it's just one of those surprising findings that we now know we have because we were able to have scannable, searchable material that we didn't have before.
Srini: Now, there's one line that really stood out to me in the book where you say, "The fewer moments we have to look forward to in life, the more valuable they become. Past grievances and 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. I said, "Frank, I have this huge fear of being alone. That was like my greatest fear in life." 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.
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 my relationship with my parents dramatically. I started going home and having dinner with them every Sunday, and 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. I'm 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 there's a Spanish liquor company that made a commercial, I
Srini: I've seen it. It's beautiful.
Robert Waldinger: And isn't it wonderful?
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 death, we will have the strength of body, the emotional stability, and the mental clarity to do the work of a lifetime. It's an absurd gamble. So we should do this work now, and that includes those of us who are not dying, who are with our eld, 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 the great thing. Hold death out there as a 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.
Robert Waldinger: Ah, it's oh my goodness, we don't have much time left. And this is what we've done with our families, with our parents, and we all need to do this because time goes so quickly. And it's not like we're going to make it all happen at the end. It's right now, or never.
Srini: So naturally that raises a question that I've asked a lot of people, and that is navigating what is, in my mind, the most profound and terrifying loss: losing a parent. 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 all, 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 a memory. So we've never known a world without our parents in it. And so it rocks us to our foundations when a parent dies. My, it's my God, how can this be? How can the world not have this person 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 normal 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 there's not a day that 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 also I hear them, like, in my voice. Now as I'm talking to you, I hear my parents' different strains of their tone and the different phrases they used. It's how we live on in those who come after us.
Srini: Wow. Let's talk about another kind of relationship, which is intimate relationships. You say that romance is something most of us hope for, not only for sexual satisfaction but also for the intimacy of another's touch, the sharing of one's day-to-day 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 made me wonder, are there people who don't feel that it's an essential part of life?
Robert Waldinger: There are people, one of the things 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, and who are not very interested in sex. They often, it's a minority, but they often feel like outliers because so many of us are driven by sex for a lot of our lives, right? But some people don't yearn for that. Really, some people don't yearn for intimate connection. There are monastic traditions, as we all know, 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 life.
Srini: So I remember reading in some book that people who are not married, are prone to die sooner. And I'm thinking to myself, I'm 45. I was like, shit, that just took another 10 years 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 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 not married as like the bane of my family's existence.
Robert Waldinger: I mean, of course, you have to be
Srini: Yeah. They've given up at this point, so.
Robert Waldinger: I come from a Jewish family and it's been around for a while.
Srini: Yeah, so I heard.
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, "Srini, she's like, 'Is this distressing? Will it make it any better?' I was like, 'Hell no.' And she's exactly right. She said, 'What if you lived the life that you were going to live if this person was already in it?' And that always stayed with me.
Robert Waldinger: Yeah. Yeah. Because you do wanna 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 along who wants to share that's gonna be great. And if they don't, you won't be missing out on living this life because this is the only life you've got.
As your zen guest said, these moments, are all we have right now. So to say I'm gonna wait until it's really gonna get better, it's really gonna start when I have an intimate partner, that is letting life pass you by.
Robert Waldinger: Yeah. I got married when I was 35 and I think my parents were really worried because it had been because it was a long time, 35 years ago was a long time, was an old age to be married at.
First of all, one of the things 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 time. And found good, solid, stable relationships much later in life. There is no time when it's too late.
And 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, but our study says, no, that's not the case.
Srini: There's one story that 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: 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 us simply pass them by. We're often too tunneled in our own expectations and personal opinions to allow the subtle realities of these opportunities to penetrate.
And so let me think about conflict with families that never get 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 a friendship. And I said, I had to choose what's right for the business, even if it means it's gonna damage the friendship.
And those people never forgave me for that.
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: 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 have to let you go. 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 have to make a choice that's not comfortable for your friend. But that isn't always the case. Unfortunately, these are just the complexities of a life where we have competing priorities and competing interests. Sometimes I have 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 did acknowledge that this study expanded, right? Talk to me about two things: one is what you've noticed here throughout the study that is common across cultures, and how does it differ across cultures? And then, when we're talking about income demographics or demographics in general, how does that?
Robert Waldinger: Does that mean that good relationships keep us healthier and happier?
Srini: That does. So what are the similarities and differences that you noticed across cultures?
Robert Waldinger: Across socioeconomic levels, we found that lack of education was associated with earlier death—the inner city men lived on average 10 years shorter lives than the Harvard men. And what we found was that 25 of the 456 inner-city men actually graduated from college. Very few of these people even went to college, but the 25 who graduated from college lived just as long as the Harvard men. And it wasn't about their college diplomas, it was about their education.
Cuz what we think is that, first of all, 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, exercise is really good. Those truths were something that the people in the lower socioeconomic group were more likely to see sooner because of their access to this information.
So those were two of 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
Srini: Wow. You say towards 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 the 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 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 with exercise, diet, and other health recommendations. We talked about education. Where is this going to happen? In public policy? In a world that just seems to be currently on fire?
Srini: Let's talk about this in terms of the life stages that you defined, which are, adolescence, young adulthood, the next phase, middle age, 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 this emotional rollercoaster, 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, but that once 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 asshole on the planet who thought my parents were horrible people.
Robert Waldinger: It is very difficult to enact public policy to further this kind of education because of the worry about treading on families' 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 need to 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 a lot of ways. Some of this may be by showing the health benefits and the economic benefits of this kind of education and training that's there for us that we can provide for our kids if only we'll.
Srini: Wow. I have two final questions for you. As somebody who's the poster child for this study, how has it affected your relationships with family and friends to have spent your life dedicated to this?
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, and every Friday at noon. And we've had that for 25 years. He lives in Pennsylvania. I live in Massachusetts. But it's, and we talk to each other Yes. About work. And 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: Yeah, it's funny you say that. My best friend and I, because of Covid, even though we were both in Colorado, just didn't see each other very much because he had a young 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 wanna co-host it with me? It'll be an excuse for us to actually connect every week, and it's been amazing to have that on the calendar, even though it's 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.
Srini: Wow. Wow. This has 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 sense.
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 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 I think the quality of engagement with the world is something that 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 find out more about you, your work, the book, and everything?
Robert Waldinger: The book is on a website called thegoodlifebook.com. I have a robertwaldinger.com website and we have a study website, it's developmentstudy.org. And you can find some of our papers 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.
Robert Waldinger: Yeah, I think she's right on 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 a bad thing; that's a kind of natural evolution. I 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 it, right? So you see a lot of, 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 to help people pay attention to that and realize that that activity, that what we're calling social fitness, is a practice that you want to keep doing.
Robert Waldinger: Yeah. From the beginning, we had a second study that started with boys from Boston's not just poorest neighborhoods, but most troubled families. So we had these two groups, one very privileged guy from Harvard College, but then some of Boston's most disadvantaged kids. And so we studied both. So we had this kind of difference in social class, in economic well-being, 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 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 confirmed in other populations with more diverse groups, right? So 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 this kind of 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
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 things in a systematic way in school, they do better in school, they're happier, and they get in less 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 this kind of 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 to teach my kids values. You're gonna try to take them away from
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, like as a species, we get happier starting in middle age, documented scientifically. But I think the one thing that's clear is that what're 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's okay. 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, and that there are people around who have our backs and will 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 want to say, but 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.
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 relationships, it's not going to happen. My relationships are going to 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 in a while and I really want to 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 been a hugely helpful change in my life. I also 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 this study of mine has really changed the way I prioritize my own life activities.
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's 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 are we 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 totally 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, what we do is rest in the secure fantasy that we know what the future is likely to be 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, and how they can change sets. And 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
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