Dr. Robert Waldinger is Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, Director of the Center for Psychodynamic Therapy and Research at Massachusetts General Hospital, and Director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development. He is a practicing psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, and he teaches Harvard medical students and psychiatry resident. He is on the faculty of the Boston Psychoanalytic Institute, and he also happens to be a Zen priest. In this episode, he talks about lessons learned from the Harvard study on adult development. You can learn more about Robert’s work at adultdevelopmentstudy.org and lifespanresearch.org.
Key points include:
Robert Waldinger, Will Bachman
Will Bachman 00:01
Hello, and welcome to the 90 T report conversations with members of the Harvard and Radcliffe class of 1992. I’m your host will Bachman. And today we have a special guest. Not a member of the class, we have Dr. Robert J. waldinger, who is a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and directs the Harvard study of adult development, which I always thought of as the grant study, which is the longest running studies of adult life ever done. Bob, welcome to the show.
Robert Waldinger 00:32
Thanks. Glad to be here.
Will Bachman 00:34
So for people, a lot of people probably are familiar with it. But for people that aren’t give us the quick snapshot of the Harvard study of adult development, when did it start? who’s been involved? And it’s been long running, tell us just give us the overview.
Robert Waldinger 00:51
Sure. So the study actually started as two separate studies that didn’t know about each other. The first one was a study at Harvard University Student Health Services, where the head of the health service wanted to study normal young adult development, healthy young adult development. So he decided to study Harvard sophomores from the classes of 1939 to 1942, who were chosen by their Dean’s as kind of good specimens, you know, fine, upstanding young men. And so of course, you know, if you want to study normal young adult development, you study all white males from Harvard, right? So at that time, that seemed like a good idea. Now, it’s probably the most politically incorrect sample you could have, but it’s what they started with. And the second study started also in 1938, was begun at Harvard Law School. Sheldon Glick was a law professor there. And his wife, Eleanor Glick was a social worker, they were interested in juvenile delinquency. And they were particularly interested in why some kids didn’t become delinquent, even though they were from very disadvantaged homes. So they chose some non delinquent boys, most of them average age, like 12, from some of the most disadvantaged and impoverished families in the city of Boston, in 1930. And then both of these groups were studied, and eventually brought together and studied together and the study has been going for at four years.
Will Bachman 02:49
Fantastic. So I know there’s been several books written about the studies. And fascinating stuff. Let’s jump right to some of the meat for us here, listeners. So a lot of listeners of the show are members of the Harvard class of 1992. What are some of the lessons around human flourishing that have come out of this study some of the choices that people can make that maybe you can inform us some of our choices around friends, or marriage, or kids or alcohol and substances, about careers, that, you know, that might be useful for us to hear as we embark and kind of the second half of our life here. A lot of us are 5051 52 What are some lessons from the from the Harvard study that that we should know about?
Robert Waldinger 03:45
Well, some of the lessons are lessons that you all know already, but it never hurts to reinforce them. They’re about taking care of our bodies. There’s, there was 100 year old guy who, whose advice to the world was take care of your body, like you’re going to need it for 100 years. And that turns out to be what our study finds and many other studies as well. So you know, you mentioned alcohol and drugs. If you can avoid abusing alcohol, and drugs, you stay healthy. Or if you can get regular exercise, if you can avoid becoming obese. If you don’t smoke, all of those things matter a lot. They have huge benefits, both in terms of how long you live and how long you stay healthy as you get older. So taking care of our bodies is really important. But then the other thing as you were alluding to, is our finding that the quality of our relationships with other people actually makes a difference in how long we live and how healthy we stay. That’s the people who have more connections with others and warmer connections with other people are people who stay healthy longer. They don’t get the diseases of aging as soon and by that I mean diabetes, arthritis, heart disease. And literally they live longer, on average, than people who are more isolated who have more conflictual, acrimonious relationships.
Will Bachman 05:27
Say more about that in terms of what people would actually the kind of the choices they’d make to maintain friendships. Did you see maybe some anecdotes? Did you see people who would, you know, make sure that they met once a week or once a month with a group of friends or that they would go and go on a fishing trip with their pals once a year? Or what were some of the things that people did, that required a bit of time investment that that kind of distinguished the people who maintain those relationships into later life versus those who let them fall away?
Robert Waldinger 06:02
While time investment is the is the key phrase there that FaceTime really matters, like showing up really matters, and that the people who have the best relationships were people who invested the time. And as you’re implying regular time, like people who got together with their friends for, you know, I don’t know, book clubs, bowling leagues, golf buddies, whatever. Those were the people who had the best relationships and stayed the happiest and healthiest. And so what you find is that people who did volunteer work, who were involved in, you know, religious organizations, community organizations, or you know, gardening clubs, whatever, didn’t matter. But that kind of involvement with other people turned out to be really important. And and that’s important, because, as I think a lot of your class is going to know, our investment in our communities has gone down steadily over the last 50 years. Robert Putnam, who’s a Harvard sociologist, did a lot of good work on this. He wrote a book called Bowling Alone, in which he documented that since the 1950s. In the United States, we have stopped investing in our communities, we’ve stopped volunteering, stop going to church, stop meeting friends, for coffee, stop having people over. And all of those indices matter in terms of what what Putnam calls social capital, how much we invest in our relationships. So the people who invested more in relationships throughout their lives, were the people who stayed healthier, and happier.
Will Bachman 08:03
Did, is there a second chance for people? Did you see people, any cases where someone had may be in the first half of their career and not prioritize that as much? And did you see people who kind of in their 50s Maybe started reprioritizing friendships? And were able to kind of change that trajectory? And if so, if so, what? Tell us like a story around that or book? What did they do differently? Or how did they explain that to the study of like, like, what was the realization like, oh, man, I realized I just all my friends were dropping off, and I needed to spend, you know, make a more intentional effort or something like, tell us about that?
Robert Waldinger 08:47
Well, there is always an opportunity to to change course, in this way, and many of our people did it. So a lot of our people were of the World War Two generation, so very traditional, what we now think of as traditional backgrounds where the, the man worked, the man invested himself almost exclusively in his career. And the wife stayed home and raised kids and took care of social life and that kind of thing. Many of the men kind of pick their heads up in midlife and said, Wait a minute, what am I doing with my life? You know, I’m just all about achievement, and they began to reconsider. And this happens a lot. As we get older, there’s a normal developmental path, where starting in middle age, people begin to be more aware of their own mortality, and aware that life is short. And when they do that, they start prioritizing, more moment to moment satisfaction, and trying to do what feels more meaningful, and often that includes spending more time on relationships. You know, you there’s a cliche, right, nobody on their deathbed ever They spent more time at the office. And it’s a cliche, because it’s true for many people, you know, that people often will realize, somewhere along their, you know, career trajectory, oh my god, you know, I could just keep achieving until I die, and what then what have I got to show for it? And they start spending more time with kids and grand children and family members and friends. So yes, there’s always an opportunity, and many people take that opportunity somewhere along the way.
Will Bachman 10:32
Tell me what you’ve learned from the Harvard study about the art of marriages. And you know, what you saw from it of, you know, what led to successful marriages, what led to marriage is falling apart?
Robert Waldinger 10:49
Yeah. So, one of the arts of successful marriage is flexibility and adapting to change. So if we think about it, nothing stays static, right, marriages don’t stay the same, because we as people don’t stay the same. You marry somebody when you’re young. And then all kinds of things happen in terms of your life development, the other person’s development. So the best marriages are marriages where people adapt to each other as they change. And they work with change. And they allow each other to to change. And to follow a new path, the the marriages that don’t work as well, or the marriages where people are kind of stuck in inflexible patterns, and don’t let each other deviate. Because life just doesn’t work that way. So and I think one of the things we find is that the marriage is where there is a bedrock of affection and respect. Those are the marriages that tend to last. And so that means that that couples can fight that’s not a problem. It’s not the frequency or intensity of your arguments is whether there’s a bedrock of affection, and respect that that seems to predict which marriages last and which marriages fall apart.
Will Bachman 12:23
If someone went back to the early records of the study, and kind of took looked at the notes around people’s relationships, like To what degree would you would you think that the the success of marriages be predictable? Based on the those early notes?
Robert Waldinger 12:42
You know, I don’t know that it? That’s a good question. But I don’t know that we could predict what we asked about starting early on was how satisfied are you? In your marriage? How satisfied are you with your sex life? How satisfied are you with the way you resolve conflicts? But it’s not the case that we could predict from those early answers? What they were going to answer 30 years later. So there may be ways to predict it, but we didn’t have any.
Will Bachman 13:17
Let’s talk about kids. So what were some of the things that led to kind of flourishing of families and people, men having strong relationships with their kids that they were, you know, really satisfied with as they as they aged? versus men that kind of got a bit distant from their kids, and maybe had some regrets around that?
Robert Waldinger 13:43
Well, there was all of that, you know, there were families where people got very distinct from their kids, especially men, in those more traditional households, but some women to a lot had to do with rigid expectations. So often, it was the families where there were very rigid expectations for how kids were supposed to lead their lives, where children would develop differently than their parents expected and, and break away. And so again, often it was families who were there was room for people to take different paths, where parents and kids maintained closer relationships. And it was the families where there wasn’t room to go your own way where there would be risks. And you know, and divisions
Will Bachman 14:42
yeah, that’s, that’s really tough as a father too. You can’t you can’t just sort of expect your kids are going to be replica copies are sort of accomplish your own goals in life. They’re just their own people
Robert Waldinger 14:54
amazed at how many people do expect that. That’s the idea. You know, that many people have about who their kids are supposed to be?
Will Bachman 15:07
What did you learn about people’s consumption of media and culture by which including their kind of reading habits? And you know, TV watching newspaper reading movie watching? What what did you kind of? Were there any correlations or links? Or did you find people, for example, that were, you know, active and avid readers their whole life tend to be, you know, more successful or thrive more in anything about people’s kind of reading and culture consumption habits, any observations?
Robert Waldinger 15:41
We didn’t really measure that, you know, there’s so many things you could ask about, right? But that really wasn’t something we regularly asked about. We would occasionally ask what books have you read this past year, that kind of thing, but we didn’t track their consumption of media of culture in any particular ways?
Will Bachman 16:04
What were some of the counterintuitive findings from the study? So some of the stuff like hey, you know, exercise and don’t smoke? That’s kind of intuitive. Anything that came out of it that has been surprising to you? Or, you know, sort of surprising when you talk to the public about it?
Robert Waldinger 16:23
Well, the relationships finding was, was surprising, because, you know, you can imagine that, yes, if you have happier relationships, you’re happier as a person, that’s not a surprise. But how could better relationships? make it less likely that you would get current coronary artery disease? How could that possibly be the case? And so that’s the surprising thing that we’ve been studying now for the last 10 plus years, like what are the mechanisms by which our relationships with other people get into our bodies and shape, you know, shape our health in that way? That’s probably the biggest surprise.
Will Bachman 17:03
That’s amazing, say a little bit more about that. So this is I’m assuming that this is going to equalized for, you know, people’s maybe activity level or their socioeconomic status or so forth, trying to, you know, take out those confounding variables. So if you have more friends, and you’re, you know, you know, just had more relationships and more success, you’re actually less likely to get, you know, heart disease to say more about what you’ve learned from that.
Robert Waldinger 17:31
Well, that there, there’s no definitive answer yet. But there’s a lot of good research that points to one big hypothesis, which is that stress has a lot to do with breaking down the body and breaking down various body systems. So stress is, you know, the physical manifestation of stress is the fight or flight response, right. So, typically, you know, you get scared by something, and your body revs up to either fight the threat or runaway, though, so, so there are hormonal changes and cardiovascular changes. And the idea is your body revs up to meet a challenge. And then it’s supposed to go back to baseline when the stress is removed. That’s the way our physiology works. But what happens if you’re chronically stressed? What happens if you’re chronically in fight or flight response, and what they’ve found is that people who are chronically stressed are, you know, have low levels of chronic inflammation throughout the body. They have stress hormones circulating through the body, at low, but significant levels all the time, instead of just when they’re needing to meet a challenge. So the idea is that isolation, and loneliness are stressors. And it’s probably probably evolved that way that humans are meant to survive better in groups. They’re programmed biologically. So if you were isolated, that’s why exile was a was a terrible punishment in ancient times, when because if you were cut off from community, it was often a death sentence, because he couldn’t protect yourself. So if stress, if I’m loneliness and isolation are biological stressors, then those people might be more likely to be in chronic fight or flight response. And they might have a slow breakdown of their coronary arteries of their joints of their brains. And that’s the reigning hypothesis for wiring. The quality of our connections with other people may either increase stress or reduce stress and thereby change our health.
Will Bachman 20:01
Did it seem to matter if it was? More connections? Or, like higher quality connections? Like? Would it be better to have five close friends or, or 50 people that you see on a regular basis, but are not as close? Or what? What was sort of the most optimal set of relationships?
Robert Waldinger 20:21
Well, that’s a good question. And one size doesn’t fit all, as you can imagine. So let’s say you’re an introvert. And, you know, being at parties freaks you out. It’s a terrible stressor. That’s different from being an extrovert, you love parties, and it’s not a stressor at all. So depending on who you are, and what your temperament is, you might be most content with one or two close relationships. Or you might be most content with lots of friends and lots of social gatherings. So the bottom line is, it really is a matter of fitting your environment to what your temperamental needs, are.
Will Bachman 21:04
You brought up alcohol earlier? What was the impact of alcohol on the class in terms of, you know, was there some percentage of the class that, you know, really suffered from alcoholism, and it kind of ruined their life was there another chunk that you wouldn’t necessarily consider alcoholics, but it had a negative effect on their life to talk about that a bit?
Robert Waldinger 21:29
Well, the impact was profound. There was a sizable percentage of people who were alcoholic, probably like, you know, 10 to 20% 10% of the adult population is alcoholic, which is kind of astonishing. If you think about it, it’s amazing. It’s huge. Alcohol, was involved in a breakup of over half of the marriages that broke up in our study. So one or both people in a marriage was alcoholic in the marriages in half of the marriages that broke up. So it takes a huge toll it also, there were what we call functional alcoholics, meaning people who can function day to day but are really impaired. So they can go to work every day. But what we would see is that these are the people who bounced from job to job, these were people who didn’t get the kind of career advancement that you would predict they would have had based on their abilities, and their backgrounds. So yes, alcohol takes a terrible toll on people’s lives. And we saw that in our status.
Will Bachman 22:44
Did you and by the way, I am just personally I read I think it was a few years ago, I read the one of the books in the grant study, I think it was by one of your one of your predecessors. And that when I read that section on alcohol that convinced me actually I decided to quit alcohol a couple of years ago, probably based on that wasn’t like me drink light drinker, a couple drinks a week, but I thought, man, it just seems like I’ve ruined a lot of lives. It’s just not worth it. And I felt healthier since then. So what have you learned about career professional success and accomplishment? I imagine that a lot of these Harvard grads from class of 38 3940 were probably mostly, you know, wealthy, white males fairly well to do mostly relatively successful imagined but still imagined there was quite a long tail of highly successful people and somewhat in terms of how people actually affected their thriving and flourishing and their happiness at life. You sometimes read, okay, above a certain income level, you know, income doesn’t matter that much. But what was your findings around how career success and accomplishment tied to life satisfaction.
Robert Waldinger 24:05
It didn’t seem to tie much to life satisfaction, it didn’t. In other words, the more accomplished people were not happier, on average, that it seemed to be independent of accomplishment that there was some accomplished people who were very happy and some accomplished people who are desperately unhappy. And vice versa. So all over the mat, that it seemed to happiness had a lot more to do with relationship quality than it did with accomplishment. So that was that was our basic finding.
Will Bachman 24:44
One now as you some advice, so for me. So I’m on Barton, this project where I’m planning to interview as many members of the Harvard Radcliffe class of 1992 as I can, and if I, if all 1600 are willing to be on the show that would do Take me 30 years of weekly show. What are some questions given the whole range of questions that that you’ve asked in the Harvard study? I’m probably not on the show going to ask about people’s satisfaction with their sex life. That is probably one that won’t include. But in terms of ones that people would be willing to answer publicly, what are some questions that you think would have been the most insightful for the study that that I should consider incorporating in the questions I asked on the show?
Robert Waldinger 25:30
Well, some of the things we’ve we’ve asked that we found very useful have been like, what are you proud of stuff in your life? And what do you regret the most in your life? Another one, we asked, which might be too personal, but might not because we asked them in a one to one interview was who could you call in the middle of the night if you were sick or scared? You know, how many which how many people could you list? And, you know, because it was really telling, you know, some people could make quite a list, and some people couldn’t list anyway.
Will Bachman 26:23
So that a measure of sort of intimacy and someone that you’re being can be vulnerable with and ask for help.
Robert Waldinger 26:31
And, and kind of security. You know, like, who’s got your back in this world?
Will Bachman 26:39
Tell me about some of the answers that you get to the question, what are you proud of stuff?
Robert Waldinger 26:44
Well, a lot, you know, again, a lot had to do with relationships. So some people were like, even when people were proud of work, they would say, I was proud of the people I mentored at work, or I was proud of how well I took care of people, those couple of physicians talked about that. It was often relational. Some people were proud of particular accomplishments at work. A lot of people were proud of, you know, their families. I raised good kids, I, you know, I’m proudest of my grandkids, whatever it might be. But those were, those are kind of the big ones. Some people would would say, you know, I’m proud that I stuck to my values, and, and was able to really express my values and what I did.
Will Bachman 27:38
What about the other question in terms of what people regretted the most?
Robert Waldinger 27:43
Well, we’re going to hold, some people said, I wish I had spent more time with people I cared about. I wish I’d been less focused on work. On accomplishment, that kind of thing. Some people. Actually, some people said, I wish I hadn’t worried so much about what other people thought and had just done what I wanted to do.
Will Bachman 28:12
That is so sad when people pursue careers perhaps that they their parents wanted them to and don’t let their and wish they had some creative passion or some, you know, they wanted to be an artist, or they wanted to write plays or or travel. Yeah. So what are you proudest of? What do you regret? Who could you call in the middle of the night? Those are fantastic questions. Any any other ones that that have been insightful from the from the study?
Robert Waldinger 28:46
Oh, yeah. One that I like a lot. What have you learned from your children?
Will Bachman 28:54
And what do people say to that?
Robert Waldinger 28:56
Well, lots of people have things to say. Some people say, Well, I don’t really learn much from my children. And
Will Bachman 29:09
yeah, fantastic. Well, where can people go and find out more about your work with the with the Harvard study, and about the history of it, and the findings?
Robert Waldinger 29:23
Oh, to two websites. One is adult development study.org all one word, adult development study.org And the other is lifespan research.org.
Will Bachman 29:43
Now we’ll include those links in the show notes. Tell me about the lifespan research. I think I looked at that site briefly. And it looks like you have some, maybe some templates or some guides if people wanted to do some self assessments, I think or tell us a little bit about what they’ll find what we’ll find at those sites.
Robert Waldinger 30:00
Yeah, we do we have, we’ve developed a set of programs that kind of get walk people through some of these big issues in life, you know, and like, have people in a it’s a small group kind of facilitated program where people can, you know, in group sessions talk about, well, what do I value the most? And am I expressing my values in what I do day to day, week to week kind of thing? What are my relationships? Like? How can I improve them, that kind of thing. So we we’ve created, what we’ve tried to do is bring in some of the findings from our research, most of which are hidden in academic journals. And we’re trying to bring it out into form that people can actually use to, to, you know, to improve their lives. So that’s what they’ll find descriptions of on the website on the lifespan research rep website.
Will Bachman 30:52
And then last question is around what’s going on with the study? Now, I imagine that are you now like, continuing it on and talking to the kids of the original participants and their grandkids? What’s going on with the Harvard study? Now?
Robert Waldinger 31:07
We’re talking to all the kids. So we in last eight or nine years, we started studying the children and they’re all baby boomers, most of them and there. We’ve studied 1300 of them. Men and women, of course, not just men. And we’ve just reached out to them again, to ask them to give us more information, but particularly about the pandemic and how they’ve done during the pandemic, and also how they’ve, how they’ve been using social media and how that affects their lives.
Will Bachman 31:47
Fantastic. Well, I will look forward to seeing more findings from it. Bob, it’s been such a pleasure having you on the show and sharing some of the findings from this research.
Robert Waldinger 31:59
Well, good luck with your longitudinal research this three year project.
Will Bachman 32:04
Thank you very much. It’s been great and we will include those links in the show notes and listeners. If you go to 92 report.com you can sign up for our weekly email to get notified of each new episode. Thanks for listening