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Work Insights from the World’s Longest Happiness Study

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CURT NICKISCH: Welcome to the HBR IdeaCast from Harvard Business Review. I’m Curt Nickisch.

Some people take the flipping of the calendar as an opportunity to step back and reevaluate where they are in their personal lives and careers. New Year’s resolutions can be one way of reprioritizing those activities and downtime. For other people, it’s a personal milestone, like a birthday, or maybe a professional one like the end of a big project.

We all have our own ways of measuring for ourselves the returns on our investment. That’s not always figured in money or time. It can also be about satisfaction, dare I say, happiness. Now, as we all do this for ourselves, often year in and year out, there are also researchers out there measuring some of the same things and asking the same questions on a much broader scale with a large number of people over a long time.

Today, we’re going to the source of one of the largest studies on human development and happiness in history, a study more than eight decades in the making.

Our guest today is Robert Waldinger. He’s the Director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development and he’s the author of the new book, The Good Life: Lessons from the World’s Longest Scientific Study of Happiness. Bob, welcome.

ROBERT WALDINGER: Thanks for having me.

CURT NICKISCH: This study got its start in 1938, 84 years ago before you were born. How did you come to step into this kind of long-flowing river of research and why did you end up choosing this as the core of your life’s work?

ROBERT WALDINGER: Well, I stepped into it because it chose me. My predecessor, the third director of the study, took me out to lunch one day and said, “How would you like to inherit the Harvard Study of Adult Development?,” and I nearly dropped my fork. I was a medical student who heard the third director of the study lecture about this amazing group of people who we had followed for, at that time, 50 plus years, and it seemed to me the most exciting thing I could imagine doing.

I didn’t dream at that time as a first year med student that I would eventually be directing the study, but to your question, “Why did I decide to do it?,” I’ve always been essentially fascinated by the experience of being human. I’m a psychiatrist, and my specialty is psychotherapy, so I do talk therapy with people, spending our time hour after hour trying to understand their experiences of life.

I also am a Zen practitioner and Zen teacher, and a lot of what you do when you meditate on a cushion is look at the experience of being human as you watch your own mind, so in many ways, studying hundreds of lives, thousands of lives now over decades was just another way of looking at human life.

CURT NICKISCH: Now, as long running as this study is, it also has some limitations right there. It looks at a certain population. Is it only Americans, U.S. Americans?


CURT NICKISCH: And only white people as well?

ROBERT WALDINGER: And only white people. The study started out in 1938 as two separate studies that did not know about each other. One started at the Harvard Student Health Services with undergraduate students, sophomores, 19 years old, 268 of them who their Deans thought would be fine, upstanding, young men who could be perfect for a study of normal development from adolescence to young adulthood. And of course, the irony is the idea that if you want to study normal development, you choose all white males from Harvard, but at that time, it was novel. What was novel was to study health.

Then, the other study was started at Harvard Law School by a professor named Sheldon Glueck, and his wife, Eleanor Glueck, who was a social worker. They were interested in the problem of juvenile delinquency, and they were particularly interested in why some children from, not just poor families, but from really troubled families, managed to stay on good developmental paths and managed not to get into trouble, so they were looking for the conditions that helped disadvantaged children thrive.

Then, my predecessor, George Vaillant, combined these two studies into one, and so we have followed essentially two ends of the socioeconomic spectrum, and the diversity, although it was not in race, was certainly in ethnicity. More than half the inner city families were immigrants, many from the Middle East and Eastern Europe, and then gradually, when I came on, we brought women into the study, so now it’s not just males, it’s now more than half women as we’ve reached out and studied the second generation.

CURT NICKISCH: The women who were studied were family members of the participants, is that right?

ROBERT WALDINGER: Exactly. We don’t add new people. We would like to, and if so, we would add a more diverse group of people, but because what’s unique about us is that we have this treasure trove of history on each person and each family. That’s what’s unique. We can’t replace that when we start today with a new person.

CURT NICKISCH: Why is happiness a big thread that’s been pulled out of this research? Is there a philosophy or a research question that it’s a goal of life to be happy?

ROBERT WALDINGER: Yes. Actually, what we’re talking about is not happiness, but well-being. What we have done since 1938 is study the big domains of human life, of human thriving, so mental health, physical health, work life, relationships, and so the study is about what helps people have flourishing lives and what unfortunately gets people into situations where they don’t flourish.

CURT NICKISCH: I’m curious about how much we can get into the lives of workers and managers as we continue this conversation. What did you find when it comes to happiness?

ROBERT WALDINGER: Well, we’ve published hundreds of academic papers and over 10 books, but the two big findings that we can boil it down to are that if you take care of your health, it matters tremendously for how long you live and how much you stay disability-free, and so what that means is not smoking, not abusing alcohol or drugs, exercising regularly, getting preventive healthcare, not becoming obese, so all those things that our grandmothers could have told us turn out to have huge impact when we look at it empirically.

But the finding that surprised us was there is tremendous predictive power in predicting who’s going to be happy and live longer in the quality of their relationships, that the people who have the warmest relationships and the people who are most connected to other people in their lives are the people who stay healthier and live longer.

The surprising part of that is the health part. It sort of stands to reason that if you have better relationships, yeah, you’re probably going to be happier, but how could good relationships get into your body and change your physiology? How could better relationships predict that you’re less likely to get cardiovascular disease, that you’re less likely to get arthritis? That is the puzzle that we’ve been working on for the last 10 years in our research, and many other studies are looking at that as well.

CURT NICKISCH: Well, the staying healthy, the self-care component that you talked about first, that clearly has implications for work environments and organizations think a lot about giving people the flexibility to be able to take care of their physical and mental health. You haven’t talked about work as a driver. One of the big takeaways that you just mentioned is not finding your calling or going after your passion, it’s relationships, and I’m just curious how much work and work environments overlap with that?

ROBERT WALDINGER: They do overlap, absolutely, and so finding work you love, finding work you find meaningful really is a driver of well-being and happiness to be sure, but what we find is that some of that has to do with your connections with other people at work, that the people who are more engaged in their work and feel that their work is more rewarding are the people who have at least one friend at work, at least one person who they can talk to about personal matters, and you probably know there’s been a Gallup organization survey of 15 million workers in recent years, that asks this question, “Do you have a best friend at work?” Only three out of 10 workers have a best friend at work, and so the value of work includes the importance of connections that feel rewarding and meaningful, and that make you want to come to work every day.

CURT NICKISCH: A lot of people feel very burnt out by work.


CURT NICKISCH: It can feel like a hamster wheel.


CURT NICKISCH: For other people, they really feel fulfilled by what they do. Relationships may be a tell here, but what are the factors about work that might tip someone one way or the other towards the hamster wheel or towards fulfillment?

ROBERT WALDINGER: Well, there’s actually another good set of studies. They’re called the White Hall studies. They come out of Britain, and they studied people’s job satisfaction. One of the things that it shows clearly is that the people who feel that they have more control in their work lives are happier and less stressed, so that is a factor, and certainly, we found that in our study that the people who felt that they could do more of what they cared about and that they could determine some of the basics of their working conditions were far happier than the people who felt that most of it was completely out of their control. The other thing we do know is that, again, interpersonal functioning is huge, that if you are having trouble with a boss or a co-worker, that’s a big driver of dissatisfaction and eventually, disengagement.

CURT NICKISCH: I’m curious if you’ve seen in the research how the pandemic has affected this.

ROBERT WALDINGER: We are now collecting data on, “How has the pandemic affected your engagement with people, if you’re still at work, your engagement at work, if you’re not at work, your engagement with people in the rest of your life?,” so we don’t know yet. We don’t know how remote work is changing our sense of engagement, our sense of belonging, our sense of meaning, and those are crucial questions as we try to understand the workforce going forward ’cause a great many of us. My son, for example, just got his first job after business school with a company that has no physical existence. It’s all remote. That’s a completely different experience than my experience of starting out on my first job in a hospital, where I was with hundreds of people all day every day.

CURT NICKISCH: Why is loneliness a problem at work?

ROBERT WALDINGER: Loneliness is a stressor, and we know that if you were in a dangerous environment, say out on the savannah somewhere, you didn’t want to be isolated from your tribe because you were more subject to dangerous. What we know is that people who are isolated now are more stressed. Their bodies go into what we think of as chronic fight-or-flight mode, so the idea is that when the stress is removed, we want our bodies to go back to equilibrium, to some baseline.

Our understanding now is that people who are lonely and people who are chronically isolated are likely to be in chronic fight-or-flight mode, that they never go back to their baseline equilibrium, and so there are higher levels of circulating stress hormones, there are higher levels of chronic inflammation that breaks down body systems slowly but inexorably, and that’s how we think that loneliness and social isolation can gradually break down multiple body systems.

CURT NICKISCH: What do you see for women who came into being research participants later in this period, but in 1938, the labor force participation was, of course, much, much lower, the double burden for women was maybe not there like it is today? What takeaways are there for working as a woman and finding happiness?

ROBERT WALDINGER: Well, you are pointing to the double burden, that idea that women who are in the workplace have to function at work and they have to function at home, and they still, by and large, have more of the burden of household duties and childcare duties compared with their male counterparts. As far as we can tell, there is no formula for happiness, which is, in some ways, to state the obvious, that some women who start out as career people decide they want to stay home when they have children, and for other people, it’s vice versa. Other people think, “I’m going to really want to stay home and raise my kids,” and they realize, “No, I want to be in the workplace,” and that many people do both. Many women do both. It is more stressful to do both, but what we’re finding is that it’s a highly individual matter.

What we found in our original participants, when we interviewed the wives, but again, this is the World War II generation, we had 20 something interviewers, these bright women mostly, who were between college and grad school, who were our research assistants, and they would go and interview the women about their lives, and they couldn’t believe that these women were happy being at home, being the traditional 1950’s housewives and taking care of the kids and doing volunteer work.

They hated this because it just didn’t fit with our young women’s expectations of what ought to make for a happy life, but what we found was that many of these women, having more traditional roles, was enormously satisfying, partly because that’s what they had been raised to expect they would do, partly because so many of the other women they respected were doing the same things, so I think it’s just a way to underline that we see in our longitudinal study that one size never fits all, that the paths that people take, men and women, are so varied and should be varied, that in essence, the options are even greater now than they used to be for different kinds of paths, and that seems to be a key to greater well-being and greater satisfaction, the ability to choose one’s path, and I think more women have that ability now than had, let’s say 50 years ago.

CURT NICKISCH: Yeah, this idea that what’s true for the average is not true in the specific is really important here, right? You, on average, might live longer and be happier in a partnered relationship, but there are many people who are very happy single, and many people who are very unhappy married, so you really can’t use these averages to decide your own life. You really do have to listen to your heart. Why is self-awareness so important, do you think, for finding happiness in your life and in your career?

ROBERT WALDINGER: Well, for just the reason that you named, which is that we are all different, and it’s a cliche, but what we find is that what lights us up, what energizes us, what feels meaningful varies so much, depending on who you are. You can see that even among siblings, among twins, raised in the same family, that even with all that in common, we are so different from one another, and so one of the greatest gifts, I think we can give to people starting out to kids, and also to people starting out on their work careers, is really try to tune in to which activities energize you and feel meaningful, and try when you can to steer toward those, and let go of the things that are more draining and depleting, and that no one can tell you what those are. There’s a Joseph Campbell quote that I love. Joseph Campbell, who wrote The Power of Myth. He said once, “If the path before you is clear, you’re probably on somebody else’s path.”

CURT NICKISCH: A lot of people have the idea that you can get inherent happiness from work, that if you find work that’s meaningful or follow a calling, you will reach happiness. How true is that?

ROBERT WALDINGER: It’s such a good question, and I think it can be a true. It depends on what it is from work that you find meaningful and derive satisfaction. It depends on what you emphasize. There are activities at work that are very satisfying, that feel quite meaningful, and that is a huge contributor to a happy life, but there are these metrics, these badges of achievement that we can emphasize to the exclusion of what lights us up and what feels meaningful. For example, wealth.

“Do I have a higher salary? Am I making more than my peers? Am I getting the awards? Am I getting the accolades?,” that, yes, getting accolades is important in terms of being recognized for good work, but accolades feel okay for about 10 minutes, and then they’re gone, right? Wealth is empty, that what we want to think about is, “How do we find accomplishments that are truly meaningful in their own right, not just because they earn us a bunch of money or they get us some badge of distinction?”

The badges of distinction don’t do it, and just to point that out, in that Gallup survey, one-third of CEOs said that they felt lonely, so being a CEO is not a recipe for happiness.

CURT NICKISCH: You mentioned accolades, but salary, our sense of worth often comes from how much we’re paid. Is there any insight, advice that you might give somebody who’s trying to move forward in their life in a happy way and also feel like they’re being valued?

ROBERT WALDINGER: Well, probably two things. One is feeling valued, and I think what happens is we naturally compare ourselves to other people, particularly around pay. We do know that people need to feel that they are being paid fairly for their work when compared with their co-workers, but then, when we think about this idea that becoming rich is going to make us happy, studies are very clear that that’s not the truth. There was a really good study several years ago that asked, “As your income goes up, do you get happier?”

What they saw was that as our income goes up from, let’s say zero to $75,000 a year household income, yes, our happiness goes up, and so what that means is that while we’re still working to meet our basic material needs, yes, the more money we earn, the happier we get, but once you get above $75,000 a year, it turns out you don’t get much of an increase in happiness at all, so the difference between 75,000 and 75 million a year is not really that great, and that’s important because so many of us are sold this bill of goods, that, “Oh, if I just make a lot of money, that’s going to do it for me.” What we find over and over again is that’s not the truth.

CURT NICKISCH: Part of what you ask people, especially at the end of their careers or lives, is what their regrets are. I’m curious, what kind of things do people cite?

ROBERT WALDINGER: Two big themes When we asked people what they regretted. So this was when they were in their 80’s, and we said, “Look back on your life. Tell us what you regret the most. Tell us what you’re proudest of,” and the two biggest regrets were, this one more from men, “I wish I hadn’t spent so much time at work,” and, “I wish I had spent more time with the people I cared about.” It’s that whole cliche on their deathbed, nobody ever wished they’d spent more time at the office.

It’s a cliche because it’s true for so many people. Then, the other one, and this came more from women, but also from men, the regret was, “I wish I hadn’t spent so much time worrying about what other people thought.” Both of those seem really useful to know when you’re younger and you still have time to make these choices about how you want to live your adult life.

CURT NICKISCH: Any other wisdom to share with people earlier in their careers?

ROBERT WALDINGER: The things people were proudest of. So almost always, when people said what they were proudest of, it had to do with their relationships with other people. So, “I was a good partner,” “I raised good kids,” “I was a good friend to people,” “I was a good mentor at work,” “I was a good boss,” so it wasn’t about, “I did this thing,” “I won this award,” and many of our people won quite fancy awards. It was always looking back to do with how they were in their relationships that they were proudest of.

CURT NICKISCH: Bob, this has been a real pleasure. Thanks for coming on the show to talk about this.

ROBERT WALDINGER: Yeah. Well, it was a pleasure doing it. Thank you for having me, and thanks for these thoughtful questions.

CURT NICKISCH: That’s Robert Waldinger, Director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development and author of the new book, The Good Life: Lessons From the World’s Longest Scientific Study of Happiness.

We have more episodes and more podcasts to help you manage your team, manage organizations, and manage your career. Find them at, or search HBR in Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen.

This episode was produced by Mary Dooe. We get technical help from Rob Eckhardt. Our Audio Product Manager is Ian Fox, and Hannah Bates is our Audio Production Assistant. Thanks for listening to the HBR IdeaCast. We’ll be back with a new episode on Tuesday. I’m Curt Nickisch.

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