What Makes a Good Life?

Robert Waldinger: Lessons from the longest study on happiness

Who’s Robert Waldinger

Robert Waldinger is a psychiatrist, psychoanalyst and Zen priest. He is Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and directs the Harvard Study of Adult Development, one of the longest-running studies of adult life ever done. The Study tracked the lives of two groups of men for over 75 years, and it now follows their Baby Boomer children to understand how childhood experience reaches across decades to affect health and wellbeing in middle age.

He writes about what science and Zen can teach us about healthy human development.

Dr Waldinger is the author of numerous scientific papers as well as two books. He teaches medical students and psychiatry residents at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, and he is a Senior Dharma Teacher in Boundless Way Zen.

His books include the “Effective Psychotherapy with Borderline Patients: Case Studies” and ‘Psychiatry for Medical Students


Introduction to a good life

Wealth, success and fame may seem attractive, but strong, supportive relationships are the keys to a happy and healthy life. Robert Waldinger, in his TED talk, shares evidence from the longest study on happiness and how it could impact our lives.

Key Talking Points

✔ A 75-year Harvard University research study tracked 724 men throughout their adult lives to determine what contributes most to a happy and healthy life.
✔ The study shows one clear conclusion: “Good relationships keep us happier and healthier.”
✔ While social connections are crucial for a good life, loneliness can be deadly.
✔ People in loving relationships live longer and are more content than those in high-conflict relationships, and those in supportive, reciprocal relationships tend to experience less memory loss.
✔ Make time for those you love, and reach out to those who have drifted from you; “all-too-common family feuds take a terrible toll on the people who hold the grudges.”

Note: Learn how to handle grudge by reading the previous book review on Sophie Hannah’s “How to Hold a Grudge: From Resentment to Contentment – the Power of Grudges to Transform Your Life“.


A good life? 80% of us wants to get rich

In a recent survey for millennials, 80% claimed that their major life goal was “to get rich,” while 50% stated their desire “to become famous.” Sounds about right, most of the people I know want to get rich while some might not verbally suggest that they want to be famous but their Instagram feed suggest that they do want to be famous, to be the centre of attention.

a good life with a red sport car?

But do these factors actually deliver on the promise of a good life? 

In 1938, a Harvard University research team began a study to track the lives of 724 men which was tend expanded to include the original participant’s spouses and offspring.

In the beginning, the participants were either Harvard University sophomores or disadvantaged boys from Boston’s poorest neighbourhoods. Hence, as adults, they pursued a varied career path. One even became a US president, John F. Kennedy.

Over the years, researchers conducted in-depth interviews with subjects and their families, reviewed their medical records, and tracked their lives. Some participants developed mental illnesses or became alcoholics. Some scaled the social ladder, while others descended.

The 75-year study generated valuable data which point to one remarkable revelation: “Good relationships keep us happier and healthier.”

“Good, close relationships seem to buffer us from some of the slings and arrows of getting old.”


The study offers three main lessons:

  1. Social connections are crucial for a happy and healthy life; loneliness is deadly.
    People who develop close relationships and have a wide circle of friends live longer and have a higher quality of life than those who feel isolated and lonely.
    Remember that heartbreak might really break your heart.
  2. The quality of the relationship matters.
    People in supportive and loving relationships live longer than those in high-conflict relationships, even if the latter are monogamous or long-term. Furthermore, people in strong relationships are better able to handle emotional and physical pain.
  3. People in supportive relationships experience less memory loss.
    When people feel they can count on their partners through life’s ups and downs, even if they may argue, their memories remain clearer into their elder years.

“There isn’t time, so brief is life, for bickerings, apologies, heartburnings, callings to account. There is only time for loving, and but an instant, so to speak, for that.” (Mark Twain)


Quick fix?

There is no “quick fix” for a good life. Nurturing our relationships takes energy and commitment, but subjects who were happiest in old age were those who “leaned into relationships with family, with friends, with the community.”

Make time for those you love, and reach out to those who have drifted away from you, because “all-too-common family feuds take a terrible toll on the people who hold the grudges.”

Book recommendation



Author: Muhamad Aarif

A notorious book addict by night and an oil and gas executive by day. As Mark Twain said, "The man who doesn't read good books has no advantage over the man who can't read them." So, read, read, and read some more.

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