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As he’s shared in things like his hugely popular TED talk, “What Makes a Good Life? Lessons From the Longest Study on Happiness,” Robert Waldinger knows well the surest, and most scientifically measurable, path to personal well-being. (It’s relationships, stupid, though he hails from Iowa and would never speak to anyone like that.)
Waldinger, a psychiatrist, heads the Harvard Study of Adult Development, which has tracked, in great depth, the lives of more than 700 Harvard and inner-city Boston men for 80 years, and more recently analyzed the DNA, health habits and life satisfaction surveys of their wives and children, too. The unusually vast longitudinal study gives its fourth director a unique vantage point on how lives — be they WASP-y or working class, Depression-era or 21st century, John F. Kennedy’s or Ben Bradlee’s — can unspool into contentment or veer into bitterness, chug along on course or be upended without warning. It also provides tidy answers to questions like whether the strength of your relationships at 50 or your cholesterol is a better indicator of your health at 80 (it’s the former, though you probably guessed that by now).
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But if it’s interesting that, say, 80-year-olds with healthy marriages tolerate physical pain better than those in unhealthy ones, Waldinger, who happens to be a Zen priest, doesn’t understate the human complexity behind the data-driven takeaways. Those octogenarians in the most protective of marriages, he notes, can still “bicker like crazy,” and all those health-sustaining relationships, he wants you to know, take work, “really, a lot of work.”
Here, a few more of the person-by-person particulars behind his study’s big truths.
Which relationships are most important to our health?
The research doesn’t show you have to have a ton of friends and love cocktail parties. It just means you have some close connections. It could be one. It could be two.
Does marriage tend to be the big one, if you have it, and it works?
It varies. For some people, yes. And this is a bit of a tangent but it’s illustrative. When our folks were in their 80s, we studied the couples, calling both husbands and wives separately every day for eight days, and asking the same set of questions. Things like: Who did you spend time with? What did you and your spouse do? Did you do any of those activities together? Did you have any arguments and how were they resolved? And some couples were totally on track; if one person said we had three arguments in eight days, the other said the same thing: three arguments in eight days.