By Jacki Swearingen
In 1938 as civil war raged in Spain and Americans struggled through the Depression, 268 Harvard sophomores began to enroll in a longitudinal study that would eventually follow them to old age and death. Throughout the decades –when they returned from the battlefields of World War II, when they settled into careers and marriages, when their children left home, and when they finally retired – these men continued to send completed questionnaires back to the Harvard researchers. Eighty-five years later their collected responses, along with those of nearly 500 inner-city Boston youths, their spouses and their children, have become key to helping us understand what shapes a life of well-being and purpose.
“Well-being is the bedrock of ‘okayness’ about life, and we see in studying all these lives that relationships build that kind of safety net, that kind of foundation that gets us through all kinds of hard times as well as provides us with fun and joy,’’ said psychiatrist Dr. Robert Waldinger ’73, the director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development and co-author of the new book The Good Life: Lessons from the World’s Longest Scientific Study of Happiness.
“You can do a lot to strengthen relationships, to create new ones, to heal relationships where there is difficulty. All of that is possible,” he added during a recent interview for ClassACT HR’73’s newsletter. Dr. Waldinger is also a Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, and Director of the Center for Psychodynamic Therapy and Research at Massachusetts General Hospital.
By giving readers glimpses into the lives of this Harvard cohort, Dr. Waldinger and Dr. Marc Schulz, the Harvard Study’s associate director, depict the value of relationships for promoting not only contentment but also physical health. Even in old age, when health issues often constrain lives, the power to work on relationships can make pain, stress and other setbacks more bearable. Those study participants who were in satisfying relationships reported fewer declines in mood on even their worst days of pain compared to their more isolated counterparts.
In the eight-decade long study, the researchers found that “frequency and quality of contact with other people are two predictors of happiness.” Nurturing bonds with friends and family members despite the demands of work and unforeseen tragedies mattered more than accomplishments or wealth. The ability to hold on to old friends while making new ones in workplaces, houses of worship, or community groups such as bowling leagues also contributed significantly to happiness. Finding ways to help those we care about and sustaining “deep curiosity” about their lives can end up enhancing our own happiness as well.
One of the original study’s 268 nineteen-year-olds was Ben Bradlee, the great Washington Post editor of Watergate fame. He wrote of his introduction to what was then called the “Grant Study of Adult Development” in the opening pages of his 1995 autobiography A Good Life: Newspapering and Other Adventures. “The study proposed to investigate ‘normal’ young men, whatever that might mean, at a time when most research was devoted to the abnormal. Dr. Arlie Bock, the first Grant Study director, was convinced that ‘some people coped more successfully than others,’ and the study intended to search for the factors which led to ‘intelligent living.’ “
As time went on Dr. Bock’s successors at the Harvard Study of Adult Development looked for ways to expand their subject pool to include people beyond the narrow sample of privileged young men. In the 1970s the third director, Dr. George Vaillant ’55, brought in 456 participants who were part of a 1940-1945 study of boys aged 10 to 14 from some of Boston’s poorest neighborhoods. That study had been launched by Harvard Law School professor Sheldon Glueck and his wife Eleanor Glueck, a social worker. “They were interested in juvenile delinquency, and particularly why some children from really disadvantaged homes managed to stay on good developmental paths and did not become juvenile delinquents,” Dr. Waldinger said, adding that the teens were chosen from homes known to an average of five social service agencies for major familial and social problems.
While that addition allowed the Adult Development Study to expand its socio-economic perimeters, the project still failed to include women or people of color. Twenty years ago Dr. Waldinger brought in the wives of the male participants and more than 1300 of their children to bring the total to more than 2,000, over half of whom are women. Yet because the city of Boston was 78 percent white in 1938, the study still has little racial diversity despite the addition of the immediate family members of the original 724 men. “What that means is that we have a study of Caucasian families. And that’s not what diversity looks like in 2022 in the United States,” Dr Waldinger said.
When the study began in 1938, few Americans identified openly as gay. The participants in both the Grant study and the Glueck study reflected that reluctance to speak publicly. “Most people who were gay got into heterosexual marriages, and many of those marriages fell apart. Some of them did not.” Dr. Waldinger said. Over time a few people came out to the researchers, and some even settled into rewarding partnerships. Nonetheless, some of the original group’s baby boomer children have also been reluctant to be open about being gay. “We know there are many, many gay people who have never come out, even to us,” he added.
“Peggy Keane,” the daughter of one of the members of the Glueck study, recounted the anguish she felt as a young woman who knew she was gay but still married “one of the nicest men on the planet.” Divorced not long after the wedding, she agonized over the pain she had caused her former husband and her devout Catholic parents “for not figuring out sooner who I was.” But at 29 “Peggy” found a partner whom she loved, and she eventually resumed the close relationship she had with her parents, who came to accept her for who she was. Her capacity to weather personal crises by creating new attachments and renewing old ones helped her become the happy 57-year-old woman she is today, according to Dr. Waldinger.
Like all the participants whose stories Dr. Waldinger tells, Peggy’s name and distinguishing details have been changed to protect her identity. “We pledge confidentiality to everyone who participates in our study,” he said. “Some of these people have told us things they have not told anyone else.” Those practices have established bonds of trust that have helped to make the Harvard Study of Adult Development the world’s longest in-depth longitudinal study of human lives. Less than 20 percent of the study’s subjects have dropped out over its 85- year existence. While most of the 724 men from the original two studies have died, Dr. Waldinger estimates about 40 still survive.
Chapters from the lives of participants like Peggy underscore Dr. Waldinger’s conviction that no life is without challenges and difficult passages. For the adolescents of the Glueck study who endured poverty and dysfunctional families, finding work that let them build sustainable lives as well as creating stable families of their own were particularly hard journeys. Yet some, like Peggy’s father “Henry Keane,” who overcame the abuse of an alcoholic father and the vicissitudes of the Detroit auto industry, found well-being in their later years through the relationships they had nurtured. Again and again Henry would return his questionnaire with answers indicating that he was “happy” or “very happy” even though he never accrued wealth or fame. He had made what the authors of The Good Life call the single best choice for securing health and happiness: He had cultivated warm relationships with his family and friends despite the sufferings of his childhood and his own shyness.
Some of the saddest stories in The Good Life are those of the Harvard graduates who began their adult life in postwar America with much greater advantages than Henry. Yet failure to establish and to develop relationships often meant that the questionnaires they returned revealed the loneliness of their lives. “John Marsden,” a lawyer who was among the most successful of the Harvard cohort, too often let his preoccupation with himself get in the way of building the strong relationships with his wives and his children that he so desperately wanted. “He loved his family, but he consistently reported feelings of disconnection and sadness throughout his life. He struggled in his first marriage and alienated his children,” the authors wrote.
One of the biggest challenges many participants from Harvard College faced was coming to terms with their combat experiences in the battles of World War II. In 1948 the Adult Development Study researchers sent them a letter asking questions such as “Did you see combat? Did you ever see anyone killed? Did you kill anyone?” The researchers were trying to understand what is now called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, though PTSD had not yet been defined. They wanted to understand why some members struggled with depression while others seemed able to transfer the leadership skills they acquired in war to peacetime endeavors.
Those who had good relationships with their fellow officers and soldiers, and who could talk about shared traumas with them fared better, Dr. Waldinger said. Those who had warm family relationships before they went to war also were less likely to develop PTSD.
Among the Harvard subjects who survived enemy attacks was a young lieutenant from Boston, John F. Kennedy, who won the Navy and Marine Corps Medal and a Purple Heart for rescuing his surviving crew members after their patrol vessel PT-109 collided with a Japanese destroyer in the Pacific. When Kennedy decided to run for a Senate seat in 1952, his campaign requested his Harvard Study records, which now reside in the Kennedy Library. In 2009 his participation was made known when a writer for The Atlantic Monthly found evidence of those records in the presidential library’s archives.
Other challenges like divorce, the illness of a child, or the death of a spouse, would await these young men from Harvard and inner-city Boston as they moved through the Cold War and the cultural transformations of the sixties and seventies. What helped many who reported the greatest well-being was having a person in their childhood who had steadily loved them and cared for them. “One of the things the study has really shown is that childhood matters a lot,” Dr. Waldinger said. “People who have warm childhoods can grow up quite poor and disadvantaged, but have a very solid foundation of well-being from warm, consistent relationships. You can be the most privileged person in the world and be quite starved for warmth and solid relationships.”
Without those stable, warm relationships in childhood, an adult from any socio-economic background will have difficulty making stable connections, he added. Indeed, one of the most poignant examples is “Sterling Ainsley,” a Harvard graduate who served in the Navy, married, and had three children he claimed to love. After achieving success in metals manufacturing out in Montana, he retired to live alone in a small trailer on a barren lot near Butte. He was separated from his wife and rarely spoke to or visited his children. A torturous childhood that had included his mother’s commitment to a mental asylum and separation from a beloved older sister left Sterling unable to form the bonds so essential to well-being, the authors concluded.
Investing in causes beyond the self, in pursuits that attempt to make the world or even a small community better also contribute to a good life, according to Dr. Waldinger. “They make people feel like their lives are more meaningful than the people who are just buying their third vacation home and their latest sports car and all that.” For one of the Harvard subjects “Leo DeMarco,” that sense of meaning came from his job in Vermont as a high school English teacher who mentored young people. Others from both the Grant and the Glueck studies found purpose and joy in passing on wisdom and skills to their grandchildren.
Every two years the participants completed the questionnaires that asked them about key aspects of their lives such as mental health, physical health, their friendships and their intimate relationships. They were queried on their work satisfaction, on their promotions and their salaries. A number of items on the forms required them to assess their level of happiness. These inquiries would intensify every ten years when the Adult Study sent interviewers to visit the men and their families in their homes. At a time when an unexamined life was the norm for American men, these participants found themselves regularly reflecting on their relationships and their happiness. While some grumbled, others thanked the researchers verbally and in letters for providing them with a way to keep returning to their lives.
“Some people said ‘Your questions are just a nuisance,’ but many people said ‘This was one of the most important things I’ve done in my life because it got me to reflect regularly on my life, on where I’m going, on what’s important to me,’” said Dr. Waldinger. “Just by asking the questions and asking them to write down responses, we’re sure we affected the people we were studying.”
That attention and willingness to change attitudes and actions is key to finding and building relationships, Dr. Waldinger said. He and Schulz have taken the broader findings from the Adult Study and distilled them into practical advice about improving specific relationships with partners, family members, work colleagues and friends. One exercise they recommend is the W.I.S.E.R. model for reacting to emotionally challenging situations and events in relationships. Readers are advised not to act impulsively, but instead to Watch, Interpret, Select, Engage, and Reflect, a process that can end up bolstering valuable ties.
The benefit of bringing renewed attention to complex relationships may not only be the kindness we show toward someone we care about, but may also be our own enhanced happiness. “Friendships are constantly changing, so the relationship needs to change,” Dr. Waldinger explained. “The importance of friendship is in how much benefit it conveys for our emotional and physical well-being.”
The years Dr. Waldinger has spent directing the Adult Study have inspired him to scrutinize his own relationships to determine how to strengthen them. After his two sons grew up and left the home he shares with his wife, Jennifer, in Newton, Massachusetts, he found himself working “all the time” on tasks like editing academic papers. “What I realized was that I really needed to pay more attention to my relationships, to my friendships,” he said. He developed new habits like making time for walks with friends during the pandemic or texting them to say, “I miss you. Can we get together?” These conscious efforts fortify what he and Schulz call “social fitness.”
Paying attention to relationships by prioritizing them and devoting time to them is a key component of that social fitness, the authors stress. Integral to that focus is the concept of “mindfulness,” which calls for us to be present in the moment and abstain from judgment, a concept defined by Buddhist teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn, whom the authors quote. Kabat-Zinn’s words have particular resonance for Dr. Waldinger, who is a Zen teacher and ordained Soto Zen priest at the Henry David Thoreau Sangha in Newton, Ma. While Zen’s texts and rituals such as lighting incense may date back to feudal Japan, they still provide a way to “pay attention to the present moment,” according to Dr. Waldinger. “My experience of Zen is that warmth is just part of the human condition when we’re lucky enough to have it and that we can spread it and pass it on or not.”
Dr. Waldinger remembers his own parents as “very warm people who came from immigrant families that were pretty poor.” His father had a gift for taking an interest in the lives of others, a quality that helps in connecting to friends and strangers alike. His mother regularly took the time to sit down in the kitchen of their Des Moines home to talk with her young son while scooping ice cream for him. “I had a pretty consistent and, as my kids would say, a pretty boring childhood,” Dr. Waldinger laughed.
For an Iowa freshman who arrived in Harvard Yard in 1969, the Zen meditation practices and rigorous psychoanalytic training that would define his later life were still unknown. What marked that first year for him, as well as for many other freshmen, were feelings of aloneness and doubts about whether he belonged at Harvard. “I just felt really lonely, and actually I almost didn’t go back after my freshman year,” he said.
By the end of his sophomore year Dr. Waldinger had found good friends in Adams House as well as a passion for acting in theatrical productions, which was stoked by Professor William Alfred’s Humanities 7 course on the American Theater. The plays of Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller and Eugene O’Neil enthralled him with their ability to capture family dynamics. “It’s no accident that I became a shrink,” he laughed.
Concentrating in History and Science, Dr. Waldinger focused on “why people did things that look crazy. How do we understand what I think of as aberrant behavior?” He examined the fatal pull of witchcraft beliefs in Salem and wrote his senior thesis on medicine in Weimar Germany. That chance to think deeply as well as the growth of friendships that still endure today made that time one of purpose and joy. “I just felt more connected,” he said. “The last three years were three of the happiest years I can remember.”
At Harvard Medical School Dr. Waldinger discovered that “listening to people talk about their delusional beliefs” interested him more than studying subjects like thyroid tumors. He went on to a psychiatric residency at Harvard’s McLean Hospital. Later at the Boston Psychoanalytic Institute his training focused on psychological development from infancy to adulthood, including how children connect to a caregiver. Dr. Waldinger brought questions about what creates secure attachments in later life to his research with the Adult Development Study.
After more than two decades as director of that program, Dr. Waldinger hopes to emphasize that it is never too late to change a life by forming new attachments and strengthening old ones. The Good Life contains stories of people like Sterling Ainsley–who never overcame the emotional deprivation of their childhood–in order to portray the tragedy of stunted or withered relationships. But there are also narratives of those who, after a life of isolation, went on to discover the joys of friendship in old age. One subject, “Andrew Dearing,” a desperately lonely clock repairman in Boston, in his seventh decade helped create a close circle of friends among the people he met at his local gym.
A 2015 TED talk that Dr. Waldinger gave at a Brookline, Ma. elementary school inspired him to include stories like Andrew’s in The Good Life. The message that building relationships is key to achieving a life of well-being went viral as his lecture became the ninth most watched TED Talk of all time. Shortly afterward Dr. Waldinger began receiving comments and e-mails from people, some in their twenties, saying “It’s too late for me. I don’t do relationships well. It’s never been good for me.”
At any point we can reinvigorate our lives with friendship and meaningful encounters, Dr. Waldinger counters. One step toward that goal might involve becoming more “intentional” about our use of the screens that now shape our lives. “Do we have the kind of agency to make sure that we don’t get pulled into patterns of living that essentially isolate us more and more?” he asks. After spending too much time scrolling through other people’s social media feeds, we begin to think everyone is happier and leading a more exciting life than we are. We too often forget that social media allows us to “curate” our lives to reveal only the positive aspects and not the difficulties that everyone faces, he cautions.
For those Class of 1973 graduates poised to return to Cambridge for their Fiftieth Reunion, Dr. Waldinger also suggests examining existing attachments and the content of one’s social life: “See where you could strengthen the relationships you already have, and also put yourself in situations where you are likely to make new relationships.” Find something you care about that puts you alongside people who share that interest or concern, he advises. Activities as varied as a bowling league or an environmental group focused on climate change can yield valuable friendships or connections that are simply fun.
Finally, Dr. Waldinger suggests regularly taking a moment to remember a person who still matters but whom you have not contacted for a long time. Reach out to that person, call them, send them a text or email, and say “I miss you.” The response often astonishes the person who initiates the contact, he said. “You’d be surprised how often something positive comes back, how often people are thrilled to hear from us.”
For those classmates who reflect on the relationships they have spun over fifty years and then act to fortify them in their remaining years, the rewards can be rich, Dr. Waldinger believes. The final page of his book reminds us that “by developing your curiosity and reaching out to others – family, loved ones, coworkers, friends, acquaintances, even strangers – with one thoughtful question at a time, one moment of devoted, authentic attention at a time, you strengthen the foundation of a good life.”