Skip to main content
Scroll For More
watch   &   listen   &   read

Robert Waldinger: Unlocking the Secret to Happiness

Robert Waldinger

People who stayed the healthiest, lived the longest, and were the happiest, were the ones who were most connected to others.

Robert Waldinger

As we grapple with a cost of living crisis and increasing individual isolation, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed, disconnected and downcast. But what if the secrets to unlocking a happier life were right in front of you, and not that far out of reach?  

Over a remarkable 85 years, the Harvard Study of Adult Development has conducted an unprecedented investigation on happiness. Through this extensive research, led by distinguished Harvard researcher (and TED talk celebrity) Robert Waldinger, the study unearthed a profound truth: the key to a fulfilled life lies not in financial wealth or our work, but rather in the power of our relationships.  

Hear from Robert Waldinger as he discusses his remarkable study with Dr Stephanie Ward (expert geriatrician on the ABC’s Old People's Home for 4 Year Olds and Teenagers) as they uncover the recipe for a happier life. 

Presented by the UNSW Centre for Ideas and UNSW Medicine & Health as a part of National Science Week, and supported by Byron Writers Festival and Brisbane Powerhouse.  


Stephanie Ward: Good evening and welcome to tonight’s event, Robert Waldinger: Unlocking the Secret to Happiness, presented by the UNSW Centre for Ideas, UNSW Medicine and Health and UNSW Science as part of National Science Week.  

Firstly I would like to acknowledge the Bidjigal people who are the Traditional Custodians of this land. I would also like pay my respect to their elders both past and present And extend that respect to other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders who are with us today.  

So my name is Dr Stephanie Ward. I’m a Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Healthy Brain Ageing here at UNSW. I'm also a medical doctor who specialises in the care of older people. So a lot of my research and life as a clinician has revolved around metrics of physical health. Sodium levels, blood tests, cognitive tests etcetera. But as I’ve matured as a researcher, clinician, and as a human being, it’s become apparent to me how important connections and social wellbeing is for our physical health. But what we really need to look at, at a broader level, is what happens in the population and that’s where longitudinal studies can really shed light. One of the World’s most well-known longitudinal studies is the Harvard Study of Adult Development. 

So how privileged are we tonight to have Dr Robert Waldinger, the director of this incredible, practice changing study, here to talk with us. Dr Waldinger is a Professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, the co-founder of the Lifespan Research Foundation, Dr Waldinger received his AD from Harvard College and his MD from Harvard Medical School. He is a practicing psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, and he directs a psychotherapy teaching program for Harvard psychiatry residents. He is also a Zen master, rōshi. Robert is the co-author with Mark Schulz of the book, The Good Life, Lesson from the World’s Longest Scientific Study on Happiness. Would you please join with me in welcoming to the stage Dr Robert Waldinger.  

Robert Waldinger: Thank you. And I'm amazed that there are people in the seats. My wife and I are here in Australia for the first time. And when we landed we came to understand that there is a historic football match tonight, perhaps the most historic match ever in Australia. So, anyway, thank you for coming. I'm honoured that you're willing to listen to me talk about this study that I love and then go off and cheer on the Matildas.  

Alright. So, the study of happiness actually wasn't considered a legitimate field of scientific study until about 30 years ago. We assumed that if we were getting wealthier as nations, as societies, that our happiness levels were going up. And then people suddenly began to look and realise that when we survey people and ask them literally, ‘How happy are you? How satisfied are you with your life?’, that as our wealth went up, as gross domestic product goes up, happiness stays flat or goes down in most of the developed world. So, people began to ask in a more scientifically rigorous way, well, what actually does make us happy? 

And you may know that the United Nations now publishes a happiness report every year, and you can download it from the web, in which scientists all over the world, demographers, sociologists, medical people, survey all different populations, asking them about the conditions of human thriving. And those conditions turn out to be pretty uniform no matter who you ask, what age, what culture. They're surprisingly uniform.  

The conditions that people feel that they need in order to have a happy life and certainly having our material needs met is important that before we have food security and housing and access to health care and education, we are not as happy. And so when we get to income levels where we have that security, we are happier. But then when we go beyond that, you can make millions and millions more and it doesn't make us much happier. So, then the question is, what do people say that they need to have a happy life?  

Everyone uniformly says they need social support, the support of those around them. 

They need to expect that they can have a healthy life. And that means having access to decent health care. They need the freedom to make major life choices. And as we know, depending on where we live, that freedom is very different. An interesting finding is that all over the world and at all income levels, people say they need the opportunity to be generous in order to feel like they're having a good life, not just generous with money, but generous with their effort, with their time, with their skills. And finally, people say that they need to be able to trust, trust in their governments, of course, and trust in their neighbours. 

So, if these are the things that people uniformly say they need to have a good life, what happens when we ask young people as they look ahead, starting out on their lives, their adult lives, what they are going to prioritise? And when they asked a bunch of millennials in 2017, over 80% of millennials said that their primary life goal was going to be to get rich, not just to have their basic needs met, but to get rich. 

And over half of those same millennials said that they wanted to become famous and also that they needed to achieve a lot at their work. So, the question is, what's responsible for this disconnect, if fame and wealth and high achievement are not on that list that the UN Happiness Report publishes?  

Well, a great deal seems to have to do with all the messages that we get all day long, all over the world, about what should make us happy. This idea that the good life is defined for us by this cultural haze we're all in instead of by us.  And so what I mean by that is just the simple things that we hardly notice. Advertisements that tell us, if you buy this car, you're going to be happier, if you serve this brand of pasta to your family, your dinners are gonna be blissful, if you use a certain kind of facial cream, you'll never grow old. You know, all of these messages and certainly the digital revolution has accelerated the delivery of those messages. And we now look at each other's lives and imagine that other people are having better lives than we are. 

This is a photo that I pulled from Facebook, and it's one of the typical photos that we post for each other. If you were coming from outer space and your only source of knowledge about human beings was social media, you would think we were always at great parties or on beautiful beaches or we always ate beautiful dinners, right? And the difficulty is that these are curated lives that we show each other, and it leaves many of us, most of us, if we look at these curated lives, feeling like we are the only one who doesn't have it figured out.  

One of my teachers put it this way, and I have come back to this a lot that we're always comparing our insides to other people's outsides. We're always comparing the me who wakes up some mornings feeling lost and unsure of myself and sad and other mornings quite happy, we're comparing that with these beautiful lives where we feel like we are missing out. We're also given messages about what we're supposed to look like, what our bodies are supposed to be like. 

So, I pulled this underwear ad. This is a typical ad, and I deliberately chose a man's body because, as we know, women's bodies are far more often exploited than men's. And we are given the impression that this is who we're supposed to be. I mean, when was the last time that advertising agencies showed us this ad, right? And as much as we realise the ridiculousness of these images, this is what we are faced with when we look at billboards, when we look in magazines, when we look at television screens, right?  

So, I'm making a case for how we find out what human life is really like and how people thrive. So, most of the research that we do on human life is done by asking people to remember the past, and that is a very good way to collect information. But as we know, our memories are full of inaccuracies. They're full of holes. I mean, think about, what did you have for dinner a year ago tonight? Unless it was a special occasion, of course, you don't remember. So much we are unable to retain and much of what we don't retain turns out to be quite relevant to human thriving. 

So, I'm making a case for why I do what I do, which is to direct the longest study of adult life that's ever been done. This is the Harvard Study of Adult Development. It was begun in 1938. People often look at me and say, "You don't look that old", but I'm the fourth director. And it began as two studies that didn't even know about each other. Both began at Harvard.  

One was a study of Harvard College undergraduate students, 19-year-olds who were chosen by their deans as fine, upstanding young men. And it was meant to be a study of normal development from adolescence to young adulthood. So, of course, if you wanna study normal young adult development, you study all white men from Harvard. It is the most politically incorrect sample you could possibly put together. And we're constantly having to convince the federal government that, yes, it's still important to fund us.  

The other study, two-thirds of our participants came from a study of children from Boston's poorest neighbourhoods and from the most troubled families in those neighbourhoods. 

Families beset by domestic violence, familial illness, extreme poverty. And this was also a study of thriving. It was a study of why some children who are born into severely disadvantaged situations manage to stay on good developmental paths and thrive. Now, eventually, of course, we brought in spouses. We brought in the second generation, more than half of whom are women so we have gender balance. But we have no people of colour in our study because the city of Boston in 1938 was 97.4% white. So, if you wanna study people in Boston in 1938, that's who you start with.  

However, what we do is we make sure that everything that we present is corroborated by other studies of more diverse populations. So, when people first came into the study, we did detailed physical exams and psychological exams. We went to their homes and spoke to their parents, these young men's parents, sometimes their grandparents. There were elaborate notes about what was being served for dinner and the disciplinary style in the home. 

And then many of the Harvard men were of an age to serve in World War II. Actually, all of them did. And then they all came back from the war and the inner-city men were too young for that. But they all grew up and went into all kinds of professions, doctors, bricklayers, factory workers, lawyers. John F Kennedy was part of the Harvard group. Ben Bradlee, who was a noted editor of The Washington Post for many years, and most people who were not famous but leading regular lives. And gradually they were followed all the way into late life.    

Almost all of the original participants have died. Only about 30 out of 724 are still living. They're all in their late 90s and early one hundreds. And we have all their children who are baby boomers, who are still in the study. We're still collecting data even as we speak from that group. So, then the question is, well, what have we studied? And it's the big domains of human life, mental health, physical health. For the Harvard men, it was their World War Two experiences, a lot of questions about post-traumatic stress, work life, relationships and eventually aging and retirement. 

So, then how have we studied them? Well, of course, we have asked people to give us information on questionnaires and we've done interviews and physical exams. But we've also become a kind of history of science study. As new methods of studying human development come online, we use them. So, now we draw blood for DNA. And DNA wasn't even imagined in 1938. We put people into the MRI scanner and watch how their brains light up as we show them different kinds of images. Many of our participants, when they die, donate their brains. And so we have a set of brains, normal brains, about which we know a great deal about these people in their lives. So, all of these are ways of trying to get at well-being and thriving from different angles.  

So, then the question is, what have we learned? Well, one of the things we learned will not surprise any of you. We learned that if you take care of your health, it matters enormously for longevity and for disability-free life as we get older. But there was one finding that at first, we didn't believe that began to emerge in our data. 

And it was the finding that the people who stayed the healthiest and lived the longest and were happier were the people who were the most connected to others. People who literally saw more people in a given week. People who had warmer connections to others, that those people, their brains stayed healthier longer, they had less cognitive decline and their brains declined more slowly as they aged.  

They were less likely to get type two diabetes. They were less likely to get coronary artery disease. And at first, we didn't believe it, because it stands to reason that if your relationships are good, you might be happier. But how in the world could warm relationships predict your cardiac status as you get older? So, we've been finding a great deal about this and the last ten years in our laboratory, we've been studying how exactly relationships get into our bodies and change them. We've been studying loneliness. And as you know, loneliness is epidemic in our world. One in three people in the United States now will tell you that they are lonely much of the time or all of the time. 

And what we know is that loneliness, which is the opposite end of the spectrum from good social connections, that is associated with earlier cognitive and physical decline, that people who are lonely have more stress-induced hypertension. They have impaired sleep. Lonely people even get poorer care from their healthcare providers. So, then as researchers, we ask, well, how does this work? How could this possibly happen? And so we look for mechanisms.  

And the best hypothesis that we have about how relationships get into our bodies and change them is a hypothesis about stress, that loneliness is a stressor. So, people who are more socially isolated, people who are lonelier, have heightened cardiovascular reactivity, they have lower immune function, they have higher levels of chronic inflammation. And all of these things can break down multiple body systems, which is how loneliness could predict that you might get heart disease or that someone else might get rheumatoid arthritis. Now, one of the wonderful things about following people over time, over 85 years, is that you get to ask the same questions over and over again. 

So, we ask the same questions about marriage. We asked them eight times over 50 years, and what we found has been found by other studies as well, that in fact, as we know, when we first get together with our partners, that's when we're happiest, right? And then we find that our satisfaction with the relationship goes down when the first child is born, which makes a great deal of sense because couples often become a tag team and they have to just trade off doing chores. But then marital satisfaction goes back up again when the last child leaves home. And then what they find is that marital satisfaction only goes down again if children come back to live at home. 


The other thing that we do is we study what warm relationships look like. And as we know, relationships are complicated and they're not smooth all the time. What we find is that actually when we watch couples argue and we brought people into our lab and had them argue with each other about the usual topics of housework and childcare and sex and when we watch people argue, it turns out that it's not the level of anger that predicts which couples are gonna stay together, which couples are gonna be satisfied. 

It's whether even when a couple is arguing, you can see that there's affection and respect there, even in the midst of the argument. And that's really important because as I talk about relationships, it's key that all relationships of any consequence are complicated and there is disagreement in every relationship. And the key is learning how to navigate those disagreements and maintain affection and respect through it all.  

The other thing we learn about is what makes us happy in terms of how we use our wealth. So, there have been some studies done about how people use their discretionary income. So, when we're done paying for food and shelter and all that, are we happier if we pay for material things or are we happier if we pay for experiences? And I bet you can guess that what we find is that the best things in life aren't things. That the people who pay for and when we pay for experiences, meaning could be anything from tickets to a football match to a vacation to going to a museum or a concert, that when we pay for those experiences, we are happier and we're happier for longer than when we buy material things. 

So, then the question again from a researcher's point of view is, well, how does that work? Why? Well, it turns out that when we buy material things, they just beg for comparison. So, if I buy a new flat-screen TV and I bring it home and I'm really impressed with how big it is, and then I go to my neighbour's house and she has a bigger flat-screen TV, that all of that comparison just makes us feel worse. And the wonderful thing about paying for experiences is that my experience isn't quite the same as anybody else's. You know, this wonderful trip that my wife and I are having to Australia while other Americans come to Australia but our trip is different.  

And of course, one of the things that happens when you pay for experiences is you're usually doing them either with people you already know, family, friends, or you meet new people. This is a family trip we took. And this is my boat that was off exploring a glacier. And we got to know people we had never met before. So, here I am, making the case for the importance of relationships. 

And I'm gonna tell you the bad news. Bowling Alone is the title of a book by a political scientist, Robert Putnam, who traced our investment in our communities. And he looked at this in the United States. I suspect it's different in Australia, but what he found was a tremendous drop in the amount of time we spend joining clubs, serving in community volunteer activities, joining community groups, and that he found that this decline started to happen in the United States in the 1950s, continued right through.  

And there was another precipitous decline in the early 2000s with the advent of the digital age. Less joining clubs, fewer family dinners. In 1983, when he did his first survey of what he calls social capital, only 12% of Americans said there was no one they could confide in in the world. And when he went back in 2003, he found that one in four Americans had nobody on the planet who they could talk to about personal matters. And we believe those numbers are increasing. One of the difficulties of these wonderful digital devices that we have is they take us away from each other. 

They are designed to capture and hold our attention. And so what we think is happening is that the digital revolution didn't begin this decline in social engagement, but it has accelerated it. And that we can be completely oblivious to what's right in front of us. One of the things they've begun to understand is that a great many of us are lonely at the workplace. The Gallup organisation in the US did a survey of 15 million workers around the globe and that one of their primary questions was, "Do you have a best friend at work?" And what that meant was, is there someone who you can talk to about personal matters? It turns out that those who had a best friend at work were better at their jobs, better at engaging customers, did better quality work, they were less likely to get injured on the job. But only three people out of ten said that they had a friend at work, so seven out of ten did not. And the people who did not those 70%, only one in 12 reported that they felt engaged in their jobs. 

So, many of these people who don't have strong connections, personal connections at work, are quietly checked out. And one of the striking things is that when they surveyed CEOs of companies, half of them said that they feel lonely much or all of the time. So, then the question is, what do we do? How do we lean into relationships? How do we change this trend? And here I'm gonna turn to one of my Zen teachers, John Tarrant, who said, "Attention is the most basic form of love". Which, if you think about it, is a really profound statement that our undivided attention is probably the most valuable thing that we have to give each other. And more and more, it is the most difficult thing to give to each other. So, what can we do about that?  

Well, there are certain things we can do. We can really be much more active, proactive in reaching out in livening up relationships, for example, long-term relationships. We can do new things to liven them up. We can structure our work lives and work teams so that people know more about each other's personal lives. 

And there have been experiments with this that work remarkably well to make people feel more engaged and connected. Family dinners. Families eating together is on the decline in the United States. Perhaps it is in Australia. I don't know. With so many families where both people in the household, if there's a two-parent household, are working or there's a single parent who's working a lot and people don't eat together. Community involvement is another way, both to strengthen existing relationships, but also to make new relationships. So, there are ways to counter this trend, but the trend is dramatic, and it's all over the world.  

So, the take-home messages are pretty simple from this talk. They're that human connection is a major source not just of happiness, but of physical health. That technology certainly has the power to connect us depending on how we use that technology, but the path of least resistance seems to be increasing isolation if we use technology more passively. And so our lives at home and at work need to be more actively structured to combat this trend toward increasing disconnection. 

So, with that, I'm gonna finish the formal part of my presentation, and I think we're gonna have time for some question and answer. And I would welcome your thoughts about this, particularly things that are different here than what I'm reporting, much of which has to do with the findings from our study in the United States. So, thank you for your attention. And now I think I've got a partner here. Yeah. I leave this here? 


Stephanie Ward: Fantastic. Wow, that was just incredible. And I have to say, you captivated everyone's attention. And if attention is the most basic form of love, there was a lot of love here tonight, I think. 

Robert Waldinger: There you go. 

Stephanie Ward: Thank you so much. 

Robert Waldinger: Thank you. 

Stephanie Ward: So, wow Robert, It's really wonderful example of insights that you can get from a longitudinal study from studying a group of people over a really, really long time. 

Robert Waldinger: Really long time, yes. 

Stephanie Ward: And particularly in medicine and health often we use these studies to look at risk factors for health conditions and protective factors and get insights into mechanisms. But it's so lovely to actually reflect back on a body of work such as the Harvard Adult Study, on Adult Development Study, and actually see ways that all of us can enrich our experience of life. 

Robert Waldinger: Yeah. Yeah. 

Stephanie Ward: And what I was really struck by is the fact that this social connection, it's seen across cultures, isn't it? Not just in your group, but it's been validated in other groups, different income levels, is that right? 

Robert Waldinger: Yes, and levels of happiness are different depending on how socially connected different cultures are. So, there are cultures, you know, especially more traditional cultures, where this disconnection isn't happening. And then there are other traditional cultures, like in India and in China, where now people are terribly worried because urbanisation and industrialisation and modernisation has taken younger people away from traditional family structures.  

So, for example, in China, many younger people are moving to the cities, leaving parents in villages. And then the younger people may have families, they may have young children, but the grandparents aren't there in their traditional roles of taking care of those young children. And so there's a lot of disruption of these traditional structures that have evolved to keep us connected and to give everybody a role with each other. And so there's a lot of worry in a great many places about how things are going in the wrong direction in this way. 

Stephanie Ward: Do you think that we're the first generation to really cottoned on to how important social connection is and are we the first generation to really go off track? 

Robert Waldinger: No, I mean, so there's a teaching in Buddhism where there's a story where one of the Buddha's disciples asked him, he said, "You know, well, community is like half of the value of practice, right?" And the Buddha said, "No, community is the entire value of practice". I mean, he said basically it's all community. And if you think about our major spiritual traditions, if you think about, you know, there's so many ways in which people have been teaching this forever. But now all I'm doing is taking modern scientific methods and finding some of the things that our grandparents could have told us, our clergy could have told us, our ancient sages could have told us. But now I just, you know, I put some scientific window dressing on it and give it a different kind of respect, perhaps. 

Stephanie Ward: One of the things that researchers are so good at doing, it's describing problems, right? And looking at opportunities. But the really hard part is, well, what can we do to address them? And what I love about your book and your take homes are some simple strategies, but do you have any other suggestions? And even not just for us as individuals, but perhaps at policy level, community level or even within workplaces that can address some of those problems? 

Robert Waldinger: Well, let me say something about the individual first and then help me remember to come back to the policy, the workplace things. So, we used this term in the book 'Social Fitness', and it was just something we made up because it seems so clear that the people in our study who were the best at this were the people who treated their relationships almost like we treat physical fitness. It's something you do again and again and again. You don't exercise today and come home and say, "I'm done. I never have to do that again".  

And the people who were the best at this took small actions over and over again. So, they would make sure they checked in with friends, with family, just in small ways. They would have regular gatherings with at least a few people in their lives. I mean, I'll give you an example. My co-author, Marc Schultz, and I have a phone call every Friday noon at 12:00 'cause he lives in Philadelphia and so and yes, we talk about our research and we talk, you know, but we talk about our kids and we talk about our families and we're friends. 

And what we find is that if you have these regular check-ins with just a few people in your life, it's a kind of active engagement that keeps relationships vibrant and keeps us connected. Okay, so that's the individual. But then in terms of workplace, one of the things they find when they do research, some good research from business schools is coming out about workplace engagement. And what they find is that we can't leave this to our human resources professionals in companies. This kind of thing has to come from the top. It has to come from leadership, from CEOs where they prioritise connections among employees, where they prioritise vulnerability and asking for and giving help to each other and collaboration.  

So, I'll give you an example. Our Surgeon General, Vivek Murthy, started a procedure during his staff meeting, big government staff meeting, where he would, every staff meeting he would have one person in the meeting spend five minutes at the beginning of the meeting just telling the group something about their lives, about their personal lives. 

And people just love this. And it made for so much connection outside of these meetings where people would get together and say, “Oh, I didn't realise you were interested in that”, or “I didn't know you were struggling with this too”. And so there are ways of building this into workplace culture, but it really has to come from leadership who understands that actually, even the bottom line of the company will be better if we do this. In terms of policy again, I know, you know, the UK has a Minister of Loneliness. In the US, our Surgeon General made loneliness his primary cause. Usually, the Surgeon General takes on smoking or alcohol misuse or something like that. But he took on loneliness, which was quite revolutionary for the US. And so there are ways, I think, to name this, to work on it collectively but, you know, going to a public place to watch the football match tonight, that's a way of being socially connected seriously rather than just being home in your living room. 

Stephanie Ward: And we hope for a great result, but... 

Robert Waldinger: We hope for a great result. 

Stephanie Ward: If we don't get it, I think it's gonna be a quick open of the book 'Unlocking the Secret to Happiness'. 

Robert Waldinger: Absolutely. Then we're gonna cry on each other's shoulders. That's what we're gonna do. 

Stephanie Ward: Can I ask you the question, though? I mean, for some people it's easy to form relationships, whether it's their own personality factors and factors within life. That just makes it easy. But for other people, the ability to form close relationships, warm relationships, which is what you found, is very protective, it is difficult, whether it's personality or past experiences, health issues, opportunities, work or not, not being married, being widowed, being in an unhappy marriage. 

Robert Waldinger: Right. 

Stephanie Ward: Does the advice still hold? And how can people in those more challenging circumstances, can they still get these benefits or is there an opportunity? 

Robert Waldinger: Well, certainly the advice holds to find connections somewhere. First of all, it's important to say that, you know, we're all on a spectrum. Some of us are very extroverted. Some of us are introverted, and being introverted is perfectly normal, even though in the US sometimes we sort of glorify extroverts. But introverts are people who need a lot of alone time. They get their refuelling from that. And what we think everybody needs is one or two really solid relationships and for introverts that may be all they need and that's just fine, whereas extroverts need more people. But then, as you say, there are people who can't get out, who are for some reason, perhaps physically unable, or they have mental disorders that make it difficult. One of the things we know is that actually using social media to actively connect with each other can be a great help so that there are people, you know, who might be the only person with a particular condition and they feel very isolated where they live. 

But online, you can find a support group of people who have the same issue that they're dealing with and can be so helpful. Actually, we've developed a program for caregivers, people who are caring for demented relatives, and many of them are shut in, they can't leave. And so we've got this online program where they connect with each other. And it's turned out to be a wonderful way of making connections, developing a sense of belonging where they didn't have it before. 

Stephanie Ward: That really resonates with me in my clinical work. Look after a lot of people with dementia and of course caregivers, and often I find the most helpful, what caregivers tell me, the most helpful thing that's ever happened is being able to connect with other caregivers. 

Robert Waldinger: Absolutely. 

Stephanie Ward: They learn so much more than they'll learn from me. One of the other takeaways I had from reading your book was just some practical suggestions about how to deepen existing relationships, approach each other with being present, paying attention and genuine curiosity... 

Robert Waldinger: Yes. 

Stephanie Ward: About what someone else is saying. And it's not only you learn something about someone, but you take yourself out of yourself, don't you? And all perhaps those worries and insecurities you have. And you put the phone away and it's very enriching. And you mentioned in the book that that's given you a lot of personal satisfaction as a psychiatrist. And I reflected upon that as in my role as well. And it's really one of the privileges to learn about other people. 

Robert Waldinger: Oh, yeah. 

Stephanie Ward: That's a great way of just approaching new relationships. 

Robert Waldinger: Absolutely. And people love to tell you about themselves. Most people do. And so if you show genuine interest, it's an easy way to start conversations. And it turns out that that's a powerful way to connect with other people. It's also a powerful way to liven up the stale relationships. I mean, you know, one of my meditation teachers gave me the challenge of when you sit on the cushion in meditation, you do this hour after hour and sometimes it can get boring. And so the challenge was to find something that was here right now as I was sitting on my cushion that I had never noticed before, right?  

And so another challenge we offer people in a long-term relationship is you're having dinner with your friend or your partner and you've known this person for years. And the challenge is to ask yourself, what's here now that I've never noticed before? And it can really liven up your experience of being in a long-term relationship. 

Stephanie Ward: I really liked the way that there were some practical suggestions. When you come home, if you've had a bad day, but really genuinely show an interest in someone else's day, how is your day? And take that focus off perhaps some of your negative energy as well. 

Robert Waldinger: Absolutely. 

Stephanie Ward: We've got some great questions from the audience as well. And I like this one. Your graph about happiness over time and children at home and that dip when children are at home. But the question is, what about the happiness of couples who didn't have children? Are there similar dips in midlife? 

Robert Waldinger: You know, that is a really good question. I don't know the answer to that question. What I know is that they've done some studies of couples who have children and don't have children, and there is no difference in the general happiness levels of those couples who with and without children. But what I don't know is whether they have studied couples who don't have children and done that longitudinal study of following them over time. Perhaps that research exists. I'm just not familiar with it. 

Stephanie Ward: That's a good question. And do you think that social media itself should be blamed for people's unhappiness, or is it more that we lack education and skills in how to consume all this information and use it well? 

Robert Waldinger: Yes, it's the latter. I mean, first of all, we can blame social media all we want, but it's not going away. And so I think that some of the research shows that it really is how we use social media, that there have been some studies that show that if we passively consume, you know, someone else's Instagram feed, for example, self-esteem goes down, levels of depression go up, levels of anxiety go up, that teenagers are most susceptible. But young adults and all of us are susceptible to this comparison that happens when we passively consume other people's digital content. On the other hand, if we actively connect with other people through digital media, that can really energise us and raise our levels of well-being. So, it really is up to us to think about this. And each of us, we can each do an experiment. If you think about it, try this experiment. Go on a website you usually spend some time on, spend like ten minutes on it and then just do a check-in. Is my energy level higher or lower? 

Is my mood more optimistic, more open, or is it gloomier, more pessimistic? And just check in and notice the effect that spending time on particular sites has on you and then use that information. 

Stephanie Ward: That's a really great suggestion. Good question here. Is it quality or quantity when it comes to connections with other people? 

Robert Waldinger: It's both. I mean, as I said, if you're an introvert, then you want a lower quantity, right? But it's not just our nearest and dearest who confer all these benefits. They've done research on casual ties. They're sometimes called weak ties in the academic literature, but they're really casual ties. They're the person who's the cashier at the grocery store who you see every week when you, you know, or the person in the coffee shop who makes your coffee for you or something, that when you have these exchanges, these little pleasant exchanges, we get hits of well-being. They increase our sense of being part of a community. And so we find that even these casual ties make us happier. 

Stephanie Ward: It's such a great suggestion. Even those small interactions, we can make them more pleasant and give us our boost. I find that myself often I'm in a very stressful role in the hospital and getting on call from people in emergency department. You just take a moment, "Hello, how are you? How's your day going?" Before you get into what you need to do and it just takes the edge off the situation and it's just nice. 

Robert Waldinger: Absolutely. 

Stephanie Ward: And I find that I just integrate that now into my day-to-day work, and I get a lot more satisfaction from what I do. 

Robert Waldinger: And it turns out that talking to strangers makes us happier. You know, they did a study of commuters in the city of Chicago where they randomly assigned some people to just do what they normally do on their commute, usually be on their phones. And other people were assigned to talk to a stranger. And when they ask people before they did the assignment, the people who were gonna talk to a stranger said they didn't think they were gonna like this. But when they were finished, the people who had talked to strangers were substantially happier than the people who had done what they usually did on their commutes. So, we know that getting ourselves to overcome that little inertia, that bit of awkwardness perhaps, and to talk to strangers really ends up boosting our sense of belonging and connection. 

Stephanie Ward: There's a really great question here, and it says, how did you measure or define happiness in your study? What a great question. What happiness? What does it mean? 

Robert Waldinger: So, we did it sometimes in the most complicated ways. We asked, how happy are you on a scale of one to ten? Right? So, we do that really. But what we do, so we use there are questionnaires and you use questionnaires that have been rigorously tested. You don't usually just make up your own questions. But we use small questionnaires that ask about meaning in life and sense of purpose that ask about how happy are you today. What's your mood like right now? But then we do all kinds of things to check on happiness. So, for example, we look at how people process stress.  

We bring people into our laboratory, we deliberately stress them out, and then we watch how they recover from stress as a way to understand their mechanisms for coping with the inevitable challenges that come to us every day. So, there are all these different ways of, you know, not officially asking about happiness but testing well-being in different ways. 

Stephanie Ward: What about religion or spirituality? Does that have an impact on levels of happiness and does that interact with connection? 

Robert Waldinger: Yes. So, here's an example. Our study of 724 families, when we looked at people with and without spiritual and religious practices, we found no difference in happiness. But other studies, bigger studies have begun to find differences. They find that people with religious or spiritual practices are somewhat happier. There's a project called the Human Flourishing Project that you can Google, and they have some really interesting reports and papers and they're interested in spirituality. And so there is some data now that suggests from a lot of studies that people who have those spiritual practices have an edge. 

Stephanie Ward: This is a great question here that I also would share, and that's what's next for this Harvard study? Are there plans to measure happiness in new ways moving forward or different things? I just wanted to mention what I loved in the book was when you mentioned that for 40 years you asked people whether they were ticklish or not, just in case it might be important. Then after 40 years, you realise it wasn't. 

Robert Waldinger: Exactly. The founders of the study asked some of these questions, which we now look at and say, "Why did they ask, are you ticklish?" And there must have been some theory. They did these elaborate skull measurements 'cause, in 1938, they thought that the shape of your skull made a difference in your character and your intelligence. So, like we have a lot of skull measurements if anybody wants to use them. So, what's next? 

Stephanie Ward: Yeah, but what's next for the study? 

Robert Waldinger: Okay, so right now we're doing another set of questions to our second generation. We're asking particularly about their experience during COVID, and we're also asking about their use of digital media because we think these are two of the biggest issues that impact well-being right now. We're also collaborating with another longitudinal study, these are veterans in the city of Boston, to look at lead exposure because we know where all these people grew up in the city of Boston, and we know whether they had lead piping, carrying water into their homes and whether they were near lead smelters that put lead into the air. And then we're gonna trace... we know how far they went in school. We know what their IQs were. We know how long they lived. We know what they died of, right? So, we're gonna look at the amount of lead exposure they had as children, and then we're gonna look at what the course of their lives was, to look at the effect of a very powerful pollutant on life span development. So, that's just an example of some of the things we're doing with the study. 

Stephanie Ward: I mean, the world's changed a lot in 84 years, and obviously, Boston's changed as well. And there are questions that you no longer ask in measurements you no longer get, and then new questions as well. And one of the questions here is, have you updated study questions over time to incorporate new social norms and new issues? It sounds like you definitely have. 

Robert Waldinger: Absolutely. I mean, the question was, are you male or female for years? Right? And now we ask people what they identify as and we ask, you know, I mean, there are just so many ways in which we change with the times. And that's been really important to try to... The science has evolved, our culture has evolved and so the study has to evolve. 

Stephanie Ward: It has to evolve. Doesn't it? To continue to get funding and to stay relevant? 

Robert Waldinger: Absolutely. 

Stephanie Ward: I just wanted to pause to ask and it's a bit hard for me to see completely, but if anyone wanted to ask a question in real life from one of the microphones, hello, would you like to step down to that microphone just there? if you can. 

Robert Waldinger: I love it. 

Stephanie Ward: Number one. 

Audience member 1: Hi. Hello. Hi, everyone. My name is Petra Williams. Welcome Robert. Welcome to Australia. Stephanie, terrible hair envy. That's what I've got here. I was really interested because I heard an interview with you online, Robert and you someone asked you if you were hopeful about the future of connection and you said no. So, two things, Okay? You could say no... 

Robert Waldinger: I must have been having a bad day. 

Audience member 1: I love putting you on the spot. But two things I just want to mention is I want you to have hope because it was because of your study and your TED talk that my friend Kathy and I decided to do something about facilitating connection. And we started this Sydney Friendships group and today is our first event, in-person event. So, say hi everyone. 

Robert Waldinger: Yay! Oh, that's so good. That is so good. 

Audience Member 1: I wanted you to have some hope because we are doing something about it. And secondly, I'm so interested in how we always outsource things. Shouldn't the government do something about it? Shouldn't policies do something about it? I think we're outsourcing our own responsibility. We're saying that social media is the problem, not us using social media. How do we take back that responsibility? How do we take back the power to say, "This is my life and I will lead it the way I want to lead it?" How do we do that? 

Robert Waldinger: Well, first of all, thank you so much for telling me about what you've all done. And this is wonderful. This is why I'm doing this. Like I, you know, I've been a scientist in my lab in my office forever. And I've wanted to talk to people about this and that's why we wrote the book because we want to get this message out in the hope that it will inspire people to do the kind of thing you're doing. And I absolutely agree with you. I mean, systems matter a lot. So, it's not that we wanna blame the systems, but how we structure systems can help with connection. But you're absolutely right that it is the individual connections that really go the distance in terms of making us feel we belong. When our folks, when we asked them, "How did you get through the big life crises that you've been through?" So, most of our people grew up with children during the Great Depression, and the Harvard men served in World War II. And we asked them, "What got you through these terrible times?" Everybody talked about their relationships, their individual relationships. 

So, with the depression, it was the neighbours just got together and shared what they had. With the soldiers in World War II, it was what got me through was my fellow soldiers. It was my family writing letters back home, my friends writing to me and so it's these individual connections that are really the bedrock that we and I think the kind of thing you're doing does have the potential to turn these trends around. And so thank you so much for doing this. 

Audience member 1: Just a closing point. We used Facebook to facilitate the connection. So, their friendships on Facebook. 

Robert Waldinger: Absolutely. 

Audience member 1: Just letting you know. Thank you so much. 

Robert Waldinger: Thank you. Thank you. 

Stephanie Ward: We might have time for just one more question. I think I'll go to you because you're closer. 

Audience member 2: Really quick. And thank you so much for your time. I work in education in early childhood, and I'm really interested in thinking what preventative practices can we put in place to support our future generation considering all you've learned in this study. 

Robert Waldinger: Yes. So, I'm so glad you asked that because you know what we know now, and I bet you know a lot about this more than I. But there's this thing called socio-emotional learning that we now develop curricula for children, right? Where we teach them, this is what feelings are. This is what it's like when you have an argument with your friend. This is what bullying looks like. This is how you can stand up to bullying. And what they find when they've delivered programs in the United States to over 100,000 children. And when they study these children, the children who get these programs in school at all levels compared to the children who don't do better in reading and arithmetic and all their academic subjects, they get into trouble much less often. They are much happier while they're in school and outside of school. So, socio-emotional learning is this big umbrella of all kinds of different classes that we develop for people. I bet they're doing this in Australia as well. Perhaps you have something to tell us about that? 

Audience member 2: My part of my role is to run a social-emotional literacy program. 

Robert Waldinger: Perfect. 

Audience member 2: But I love hearing that we're on the right track. 

Robert Waldinger: Oh, gosh. Absolutely. Yeah. 

Stephanie Ward: Well, we are out of time. So, firstly, can I thank all of you for your great questions. I couldn't get through all of these fantastic questions and for being so interactive and thoughtful around this presentation and huge thanks to Dr. Robert Waldinger. 

Robert Waldinger: Thank you. 


Stephanie Ward: We're really sharing with us so many great strategies to improve our lives and those of people around us. And if you'd like to hear about upcoming events and podcasts, don't forget to subscribe to the UNSW Center for Ideas newsletter and we'll be seeing you at the next event. Thank you. Good night and go Matildas. 

Robert Waldinger: Go Matildas.

Second Applause

UNSW Centre for Ideas: Thanks for listening. This event was presented by UNSW Centre for Ideas and UNSW Medicine and Health as part of National Science Week. For more information visit and don’t forget to subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. 

Robert Waldinger

Robert Waldinger

Robert Waldinger is a Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, Director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development at Massachusetts General Hospital, and co-founder of the Lifespan Research Foundation. Dr Waldinger received his AB from Harvard College and his MD from Harvard Medical School. He is a practicing psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, and he directs a psychotherapy teaching program for Harvard psychiatry residents. He is also a Zen master (Roshi) and teaches meditation in New England and around the world. Robert is the co-author, with Marc Schulz, of the book The Good Life: Lessons From the World’s Longest Scientific Study on Happiness

Stephanie Ward

Stephanie Ward

Dr Stephanie Ward is a Senior Research Fellow for the Centre for Healthy Brain Ageing in the Faculty of Medicine & Health at UNSW Sydney, along with being the Clinical Lead of the Australian Dementia Network Registry, the first clinical quality registry for dementia in Australia. Ward leads the SNORE-ASA substudy of the ASPREE study, investigating sleep apnea and its relationship with cognition and neuroimaging in healthy older adults. She is also involved in randomised controlled trials evaluating interventions to promote healthy ageing, including a trial of intergenerational contact. Stephanie has been an expert geriatrician on the award-winning ABC factual series Old People's Home for 4 Year Olds and Teenagers that has further exemplified the reciprocal benefits of joining young and old together. Dr Ward is also a practicing geriatrician at the Prince of Wales Hospital, leading an inpatient acute medical unit and working in a cognitive disorders clinic.  

For first access to upcoming events and new ideas

Explore past events