The Key To Happiness, According To A Decades-Long Study : Consider This from NPR If you could change one thing in your life to become a happier person — like your income, a job, your relationships or your health — what would make the biggest difference?

That's the question Harvard psychiatrist Dr. Robert Waldinger has been attempting to answer through decades of research. He's the director of "the world's longest-running scientific study of happiness," and he spoke with Ari Shapiro about the factor that appears to make the biggest difference in people's lives.

Waldinger is a co-author of The Good Life: Lessons from the world's longest scientific study of happiness.

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The Key To Happiness, According To A Decades-Long Study

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The psychiatrist Robert Waldinger posed this question on NPR nearly 10 years ago.

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ROBERT WALDINGER: If you could give one magic pill that would improve physical health, improve mood, reduce weight, what would that magic drug be?

SHAPIRO: His answer wasn't all that surprising.

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WALDINGER: Exercise.

SHAPIRO: OK, so we all know exercise is good for us. But what makes Waldinger's advice particularly noteworthy is that it comes from a study Harvard's been conducting since the 1930s - decades and decades of observing how people live and what leads to a healthy and fulfilling life. Another piece of advice he gave at the time - try meditating.

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WALDINGER: Because what you do is you watch your mind spin out. And eventually it settles down, and eventually you begin to have more perspective - that it really doesn't matter if you arrive a little bit late for that dinner party.

SHAPIRO: Waldinger also encouraged men to consider seeking a therapist to help manage their stress, and he had some thoughts on late-night drinking.

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WALDINGER: It feels, in the moment, like having that extra drink at night eliminates stress because it relaxes you, but it turns out that it disturbs sleep.

SHAPIRO: Well, that's all helpful guidance, but none of that stacks up to what Waldinger's research has shown is the No. 1 secret to living a happy life. He came back to tell me about it.

WALDINGER: What's different is that we have a lot of scientific data now because we've tracked thousands of people, literally, over many decades.

SHAPIRO: CONSIDER THIS - the world's longest-running scientific study of happiness has found an answer to what makes the biggest difference in our lives. It's as simple as it is profound. And of course, you'll have to wait until after the break to find out what it is.

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SHAPIRO: From NPR, I'm Ari Shapiro. It's Tuesday, January 17.

It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. The Harvard Study of Adult Development has been going on since 1938 - years before its current director, Robert Waldinger, was even born. From the outset, Waldinger says, this study was different from anything that had come before.

WALDINGER: Well, the study started out as a study of what makes people thrive. And it was very unusual to do that. We've spent so much time studying what goes wrong in life. And so this was a study of how people take good paths as they go through life.

SHAPIRO: And as the study has stretched on over the decades, it has grown to include the families of the original subjects.

WALDINGER: We talked with their grandparents. And we talked, of course, with their parents and now the children, most of whom are baby boomers.

SHAPIRO: Waldinger is co-author of a new book about this research, called "The Good Life," and he spoke with me about what one thing makes the biggest difference to our happiness.

When we use the word happiness, what are we actually talking about? Because there's a difference between, like, the spike of a sugar-rush high and sort of the contentment of sitting on a rocking chair on a porch in your old age.

WALDINGER: Exactly. And it's both. You know, we do like that sugar-rush high - that I'm-having-fun-right-now-at-this-party kind of high. And then, there's the happiness that comes from feeling like I'm having a good life, a decent life, a meaningful life. And we all want some of both, but some of us really prioritize one kind over the other kind.

SHAPIRO: Well, life is obviously very complicated, and your research goes into great detail across a wide range of variables. And given all of that, I was really surprised at how uncomplicated the answer to this central question is. So let's reveal - if people could change one thing in their lives to be happier, what should they choose, according to the data?

WALDINGER: They should invest in their relationships with other people. We found that the strongest predictors of who not just stayed happy, but who was healthy as they went through life - the strongest predictors were the warmth and the quality of their relationships with other people.

SHAPIRO: Does it matter whether we're talking about friends, spouses, co-workers, other kinds of relationships?

WALDINGER: It doesn't matter. We get benefits from all of those kinds of relationships, including the person who makes our coffee for us in the morning, including the person who delivers our mail. We get little hits of well-being in all these different kinds of relationships.

SHAPIRO: Can you explain why?

WALDINGER: What we think is that relationships are stress regulators - that chronic stress, as we know, is a big problem - that it breaks down our coronary arteries, and it breaks down our joints. It has numerous health hazards. And what we find is that good relationships are stress relievers. You know, if you think about it, if I have something upsetting happen during the day, and I'm ruminating about it, my body revs up. And if I have somebody who's a good listener that I can go home to or call on the phone, I can literally feel my body come down - go back to baseline - if I can talk to somebody about it. And we think that that's how relationships relieve stress and keep us healthy.

SHAPIRO: Are introverts just out of luck? Like, does it matter - quantity versus quality of friendships? Is one or two really close friendships as valuable as dozens of friendships that might not be quite as deep?

WALDINGER: It all depends on what you need. So we're all somewhere on a spectrum from being shy to being extroverted, and neither is a problem. Being really shy is not a problem. Those people just need fewer other people in their lives than those party animals. And so it's really up to each of us to kind of check in with ourselves and see what works for me. What's energizing, but not exhausting or frightening - you know, what number of people, what kinds of contacts?

SHAPIRO: One of the things that surprised me about the book - one of the takeaways that I was left with was that, as we think about what we prioritize in our lives, we should actually consciously make space for our connections with others in a way that is not just, like, a break or a treat or a reward, but in the same way that we might prioritize - I don't know - exercise or whatever else we might think will help us live longer, healthier lives. Actually spending time with our friends is a good thing to do - not just something that we can give ourselves as a reward for all of the other virtuous things that we might have carved out space for.

WALDINGER: Exactly. And we often imagine that, well, our good friends are going to stay our friends forever, and no need to do anything to keep those relationships up. But many good relationships will just wither away from neglect. So we talk about what we call social fitness in the book, which is really tending to our relationships just like we take care of our physical health - just like we take care of physical fitness.

SHAPIRO: Is there a point in life when it becomes too late to change course? Like, how fixed are our paths?

WALDINGER: You know, we've tracked these lives for eight decades, and the wonderful thing about following these life stories is we learned it's never too late. There were people who thought they were never going to have good relationships and then found a whole collection of good, close friends in their 60s or 70s. There were people who found romance for the first time in their 80s. And so the message that we get from studying these thousands of lives is that it is never too late.

SHAPIRO: Right now, Americans generally report feeling lonelier and more isolated than people in their parents' or grandparents' generations. So give us an example or two of concrete, specific things that anybody could do tomorrow to help reroute their lives down the path that your research shows will lead to greater happiness, health and longevity.

WALDINGER: Well, one thing would be to, right now, think of somebody you miss or would like to see more of and just send them a text. Send them an email. Call them on the phone. But the other thing you can do, if you feel like you are not very connected with others, is to think about the things you love to do or the things you care about and find ways to do those things alongside other people. Because what we know is that, when we do that - when we're engaged in activities that we care about with other people who care about the same things, we start out with something in common. And from there, it's very natural to strike up conversations and, with some of those people, make deeper relationships.

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SHAPIRO: Dr. Robert Waldinger is a psychiatry professor at Harvard Medical School, and, with Marc Schulz, he's the author of "The Good Life: Lessons From The World's Longest Scientific Study Of Happiness.

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SHAPIRO: It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. I'm Ari Shapiro.

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