The Good Life: Lessons From the World’s Longest Scientific Study of Happiness

From a Wall Street Journal review by Richard J. McNally of the book by Robert Waldinger and Marc Schulz titled “The Good Life: Lessons From the World’s Longest Scientific Study of Happiness”:

What constitutes a life well-lived? What are the ingredients for lasting happiness? In their captivating book “The Good Life: Lessons From the World’s Longest Scientific Study of Happiness,” the psychiatrist Robert Waldinger and the clinical psychologist Marc Schulz convey key lessons that arise from studying the lifetimes of hundreds of individuals across the 20th and 21st centuries. The major lesson is the overriding importance of positive interpersonal relationships throughout the lifespan.

Dr. Waldinger teaches at Harvard Medical School; Mr. Schulz at Bryn Mawr. They are the current directors of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, an investigation now in its 85th year of data collection. The study began as two independent longitudinal projects, one comprising 268 Harvard sophomores deemed likely to flourish later in life and the other consisting of 456 14-year-old boys growing up in Boston’s most disadvantaged neighborhoods. The purpose of both studies, long since merged, was to identify predictors of health, happiness and flourishing in young adulthood and beyond.

At the outset, the Harvard investigators interviewed participants and their parents and conducted a medical examination of each participant. Although most original members are now deceased, their wives and offspring have been recruited as additional participants. The current protocol asks members to complete a comprehensive questionnaire every two years, authorize disclosure of medical records every five years and agree to a face-to-face interview every 15 years. Questions span every aspect of their lives such as family, employment, mental and physical health, and their views on life, politics and religion. Each assessment point provides a comprehensive snapshot of the participant’s life, and, taken together, the data furnish rich portraits of lives as they unfold over time.

“The Good Life” is not a comprehensive scholarly exposition of the Harvard study. Rather, the authors aim to provide practical wisdom regarding the pursuit of happiness arising from their project. Social fitness, as the authors put it, is the key to mental health, physical health and longevity. Developing skills that enable one to cultivate and maintain positive connections to other people is as least as important as proper nutrition, physical exercise, adequate sleep and the avoidance of harmful habits such as smoking. Yet it is easy to take these relationships for granted in today’s individualistic and hypercompetitive societies.

An important part of social fitness is cognitive flexibility, exemplified by the capacity to see the world through another person’s eyes, to express empathic understanding and to attend fully to others. The authors note how technologies like smartphones and social media seize our attention and keep us from attending to loved ones, to their detriment and ours. They also emphasize the importance of positive relationships in the workplace as well as the upticks in one’s mood prompted by brief, positive interactions with strangers.

Learning interpersonal and emotional skills has become increasingly important in view of the epidemic of loneliness accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic and the attendant remote work and schooling. Loneliness is not solitude; it is perceived social isolation. People suffering the pain of loneliness are experiencing less positive social contact than they would like. Extroverts favor more social interaction and introverts favor less. But voluntary hermits are rare.

Throughout the book, Dr. Waldinger and Mr. Schulz insightfully narrate episodes from the struggles, failures and triumphs of their participants. One section introduces a man called Neal, whose mother struggled with alcoholism and who found himself helping a daughter who did the same. “Can I get your professional opinion?” Neal at one point asked an interviewer. “Is there anything more I can do for her? Do you think I’ve done something wrong?” The authors illustrate their theme of social connection by praising the way Neal and his wife dealt with their daughter: “Sometimes they had to step back, sometimes they had to step in. But they never turned away.” Elsewhere, they show how children growing up in seriously troubled families can nevertheless flourish if they have at least one positive relationship with an adult, such as a teacher or coach.

Happiness is not a destination, a goal to be achieved. It is not a state of being but a process of becoming. And the good life is not devoid of disappointments, failures and struggles.

No study is without limitations. The original participants are far from representative of the American population, then or now. The second generation of Baby Boomers are somewhat more representative, as this group includes women, but one wonders whether conclusions that hold for members of the “Greatest Generation” will apply to Millennials or members of Generation Z.

Dr. Waldinger and Mr. Schulz are aware of these interpretive ambiguities and so they buttress their case by drawing on multiple sources of data, including other prospective longitudinal studies and research by experimental social psychologists. To elucidate their view of happiness, they also draw on Aristotle’s concept of eudaimonia as distinct from hedonia. A eudaimonic life is characterized by purpose, meaning and flourishing, whereas a hedonic one is characterized by pleasure and joy.

Yet the pursuit of happiness can be counterproductive, as John Stuart Mill observed. After recovering from an apparent episode of major depression, Mill wrote that “those only are happy (I thought) who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness; on the happiness of others, on the improvement of mankind, even on some art or pursuit, followed not as a means, but as itself an ideal end. Aiming thus at something else, they find happiness by the way.” Dr. Waldinger and Mr. Schulz do not mention Mill, but given their emphasis on eudaimonic happiness and human flourishing as a process, not a destination, I suspect they would find in Mill a compatible soul.

Richard J. McNally, a professor of psychology and director of clinical training at Harvard University, is the author of “What Is Mental Illness?”

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