The Lifespan Research Foundation may have the answer
Forget cholesterol, the best indicator of a long life may well be the quality of a person’s relationships. And Dr. Robert Waldinger has the evidence to prove it.
Waldinger is the fourth director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development – considered one of the longest research studies of its kind in the country. Begun in the late 1930s with two separate and very distinct groups of men, it continues today with its original aim: to understand what makes for a good life.
While the findings from the multi-faceted, qualitative research are more nuanced, the dominant message from over 80 years of work is that good relationships keep us happier and healthier.
“The surprising finding was that when we wanted to predict who was going to age well, who was going to age in better health for longer, and who was going to live longer, it turned out to be the people who were most connected to other people,” he said.
In an indication of how hungry people are for wisdom in this area, Waldinger’s TEDx Talk on the subject is in the top ten most viewed talks in history. As a result of that response, Waldinger decided to start the Lifespan Research Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to translating the key findings in the study into a prescription for how to live a healthier and more meaningful life.
The study as we know it today is actually the interweaving of two studies whose authors were unaware of the other’s existence. The first began at the Harvard University Health Service at the urging of department store magnate W.T. Grant who was interested in understanding elements of success in business, basically what it would take to be a good department store manager. The director of the health center was able to expand the study to focus on healthy development – general physical and mental wellbeing – primarily from adolescence into adulthood.
As Waldinger said with no small touch of irony, “In America in the 1930s, if you wanted to study healthy young adult development, you picked, as your cohort, white men from Harvard.”
Out of four classes, 1939 to 1942, the Harvard deans chose a total of 268 sophomores who they thought were the soundest specimens to study. Since then, this same group of men completed questionnaires every two years, gave extensive interviews, had their family members interviewed, and their physical and mental health assessed for what was literally the rest of their lives. (A very small percentage of the men are still alive and still participating in the study well into their nineties.)
Also in the late 1930s, a Harvard law school professor, Sheldon Glueck and his wife Eleanor, a social worker, were interested in juvenile delinquency, particularly what protected boys from troubled and impoverished backgrounds from becoming delinquent. The aim of that study, which identified teenage boys who were most likely to turn out badly yet were doing well, was to understand what kept them out of trouble.
That study involved 456 non-delinquents who were not only from poor neighborhoods, but had families that, on average, were known to five social service agencies for a variety of issues, including mental illness and domestic violence.
In the early 1970s, the third director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, George Vaillant, thought it would be interesting to bring these two studies together as contrasting groups, with their original aims broadly intact.
The larger study accelerated the traction gained by each of the individual efforts and kept it going far longer than expected.
Its longevity allowed the researchers to look beyond the transition from adolescence into young adulthood to adult development over a lifetime. In the last five years, the study has been expanded to include over 1300 of the children of these men, most in their 50s and 60s, extending the reach of the research across generations.
“Child development has been well studied for many decades but adult development has only recently been studied because we used to think when you’re 21, and you’ve found a partner and a job, you’re done,” said Waldinger. “And now, of course, we realize that adulthood is a time of tremendous growth and change.”
What we now know
Dr. Waldinger begins his TEDx Talk by citing a recent poll of millennials who were asked about their major life goal; 80 percent of whom responded “to get rich” and over 50 percent of whom said “to become famous.”
Audience members may have guessed where this was going but for the next 15 minutes, Waldinger explains that, not only do the goals declared at youth change dramatically over time, the most determining factors in a happy life are those that are rarely drummed into us as children.
“We’re given the impression that fame and fortune are what we should be going after, but we’ve learned from observing entire lives that what keeps people happy and healthy are good relationships,” said Waldinger.
For the men in the study – whether tradesman or CEO’s, married or single, rich or poor — it was the quality of their close relationships that became the protective factor against premature aging and illness.
Connections, be it in the community or with a close friend, and having a higher purpose to your life, were dynamics claimed by the happiest and healthiest members of the group, regardless of their status.
In the reverse, loneliness (now claimed by one out of five Americans) was found to be, as Waldinger says, “toxic” to health and overall wellbeing.
“At first we didn’t believe the findings,” he said. “In the 80’s we thought, ‘how could your relationships actually impact whether you got heart disease or how long you were going to live?’ And then other research groups studying completely different groups of people found similar things and we began to say ‘wait a minute. This mind/body connection has really powerful impact.”
When Waldinger surveyed people following the reaction to his TED Talk, he learned that his audience cut across every demographic, indicating a universal yearning for this kind of information.
He says it was not just about one or two important takeaways but, rather, insights generally about what really happens to people throughout life; what adulthood looks like for most people; and what constitutes a life of purpose.
“My TED Talk could have been given by a minister at a church and for some people, that would be enough. But for many people, it’s not. What this study does is give legitimacy to this truth through science.”
Research to practice
If the study provides the evidence, then the Lifespan Research Foundation is the application of what has been learned. Founded in 2018, the Foundation provides content and consulting derived from the key findings, starting with the lifespan perspective which Waldinger describes as “understanding where you are in your lifespan and how that shapes your views of life.”
“The Lifespan perspective is an important foundation because, literally, the fact of death, and the fact of a finite lifespan, drives a lot of our psychology and a lot of our behavior,” he said.
The Foundation helps people examine three major domains: their sense of purpose; affirmative relationships; and adapting to challenges, all in the context of how these things change over time. Through workshops and online content, Waldinger says people can better understand and improve each of these domains. It is Waldinger’s insight into relationships that may be the most eye-opening and, ultimately, the most life-changing.
‘Sure, relationships are important but the question is what kind of relationships are the most beneficial? What elements within a relationship actually promote health?”
Waldinger outlines over a dozen components, affirmed by research, of “good” relationships, challenging assumptions within more traditional narratives. Just as staying in a high-conflict marriage can be more detrimental to your health than becoming single, having a high-quality relationship with any partner or mentor can be just as affirming as having a loving spouse or parent.
He also cautions that good relationships are not conflict-free, noting that many couples studied in the research frequently argued.
“They just knew, that, at the end of the day, they had each other’s backs.”