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Happiness in America, Part 1: The Secret to a “Good Life,” According to an 80-Year Study

Derek chats with Robert Waldinger and Marc Schulz about what their study teaches us about the secrets to a fulfilling life

Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images


Americans have never had more access to social technology. It’s easier to talk to friends and family members hundreds of miles away; easier to see their faces; and easier to find single people to date. But if you ask them, Americans today will say they are as lonely as or lonelier than any time on record. The amount of time all Americans spend alone has increased every year for about a decade.

What’s going on?

Today’s episode is about the longest study on happiness in U.S. history—the Harvard Study of Adult Development. Our guests are the study’s director and associate director, Robert Waldinger and Marc Schulz. They are the authors of a new book, The Good Life, about what their study should teach all of us about the secret to a long and fulfilling life.

If you have questions, observations, or ideas for future episodes, email us at PlainEnglish@Spotify.com. You can find us on TikTok at www.tiktok.com/@plainenglish_


In the following excerpt, Robert Waldinger and Marc Schulz discuss their study and the connection between happiness and human connection.

Derek Thompson: Bob, let’s start with you, and let’s start with this famous Harvard study. Can you give us the basics?

Robert Waldinger: Well, it started in 1938, two studies that didn’t know about each other’s existence. One study was of Harvard College undergraduates, 19-year-old young men, who were chosen as a study of the best and the brightest as they moved from adolescence into young adulthood. Of course, if you wanted to study normal young adult development, you study all white men from Harvard. It’s absolutely the most politically incorrect sample you could ever have.

But in addition, at Harvard Law School, they started a study of juvenile delinquency, looking at children from Boston’s poorest neighborhoods in 1938, and not just the poorest neighborhoods, but families that were known to social service agencies for family problems, for domestic violence, familial mental illness, physical illness, extreme poverty. The question in that study was, “How do some children born with so many strikes against them manage to stay on good developmental paths, manage to stay out of trouble?” Both were studies of thriving—of normal adolescent to young adult development—at a time when almost all the research that had been done was studying what goes wrong in development so that we could figure out how to help.

Thompson: This is now—correct me if I’m wrong—the largest or longest longitudinal study in American history. What is so special about a study that goes on and on and on like this, Marc?

Marc Schulz: There are a few things that make it special. Part of it is the closeness with which we’ve followed people across time. From the very beginning, both studies were really interested in getting up close and personal and trying to understand the lived experience of participants. They started with visits to the homes of the participants, interviews with the parents, observations of how they interacted with the children.

Then, we followed them very closely, across 85 years now. Interviews, lots and lots of questionnaires, physical exams, lots of poking and prodding of physical proportions early in the study. More recently, lots of modern scientific techniques like brain scans and blood draws to learn a little bit about their immunological functioning and their inflammatory patterns. It’s a study that’s followed people really closely.

The longitudinal part is important because we often have an idea—we imagine we can predict how things might unfold in the future—but it turns out our predictions are often wrong. Following people across time, across their entire adult life, is very rare. We think we’re one of the only studies that has done this intensive study of adult life across entire lives—really a remarkable study. It started long before Bob and I were involved, and we’re just the lucky recipients of some of the hard work that came before us.

Thompson: Bob, the big question people are going to have is “What’s the takeaway? What did we learn that is most important to live a happy, good, long life?” I see no reason to bury the lede here. You found that social fitness is the key to mental health, physical health, and longevity. What is social fitness, and why is it so important?

Waldinger: Well, social fitness is just a phrase we coined to reflect what we think is the truth, which is that it should be analogous to physical fitness. It’s a lifelong practice. The idea being that the people in our study who had the warmest connections with other people stayed the healthiest and were the happiest as they went through their lives. The surprise was not so much that they were happier, because if you have good relationships, sure, you’re going to be happier. The surprise was that they actually stayed healthier, and that was what initially we didn’t believe until many other studies began to find the same thing. Now, it’s quite a robust finding, well accepted in the scientific literature.

Thompson: What would be the causal explanation, Marc, for why social fitness would redound to physical fitness? Having lots of friends is good for your blood pressure? Connect the dots for me in a sophisticated way.

Schulz: It’s such an important question, and it’s really a frontier question in science. Right now, we’re figuring out all of what we would call those mechanisms that help explain how those social connections get into our bodies and shape our well-being. There are a few ways of thinking about it. One is that relationships turn out to be really good stress busters. They help us navigate through stressful challenges. We rely on a friend or a partner to figure out the right path to help us deal with all the emotions that we might have, to tell us that we’re not thinking about something in the right way or we’ve lost a piece of it that’s really important.

Relationships serve that important function of helping us navigate stress, but they serve so many functions that they’re likely to literally get under our skin. We experience a sense of vitality and human connection when we’re with people. We experience less pain if we’re holding the hands of others. There are lots of behavioral indicators that show us that relationships matter in that way, and we’re just beginning to understand the mechanism.

These relationships that we’re talking about, close connections, can affect your immune functioning. They can affect how quickly wounds heal. Literally, if you have a wound, your wound will heal quicker if you’re in a connected and warm relationship with a partner. It affects our immunological functioning, our inflammatory patterns. We’re learning more and more about the “why” of why those connections exist, and it’s a very exciting time as that unfolds.

This excerpt was edited for clarity. Listen to the rest of the episode here and follow the Plain English feed on Spotify.

Host: Derek Thompson
Guests: Robert Waldinger and Marc Schulz
Producer: Devon Manze

Subscribe: Spotify