Robert Waldinger: Can A 75-Year-Old Study Deliver Wisdom For All Of Us? Psychiatrist Robert Waldinger is the director of a 75-year-old study on happiness and satisfaction. He shares what he has learned, as well as his wisdom on how to find fulfillment.
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Can A 75-Year-Old Study Deliver Wisdom For All Of Us?

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Can A 75-Year-Old Study Deliver Wisdom For All Of Us?

Can A 75-Year-Old Study Deliver Wisdom For All Of Us?

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GUY RAZ, HOST:

So at the beginning of the show, we heard from writer Joshua Prager and his book of quotable wisdom for each year of your life, including this line for the age of 65, from writer Doris Lessing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

JOSHUA PRAGER: There was nothing to getting old - quite pleasurable, really, for if this or that good took itself off, then all kinds of pleasures unsuspected by the young presented themselves.

RAZ: Yeah. So what do you think?

ROBERT WALDINGER: I love that quote.

RAZ: You like it?

WALDINGER: Yes. And, you know, there's research that shows that as a rule, people get happier as they get older.

RAZ: Dr. Robert Waldinger...

WALDINGER: I'm clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

RAZ: ...Is 65...

WALDINGER: (Laughter).

RAZ: ...By the way.

WALDINGER: Absolutely.

RAZ: And for years and years, he says, science had no way to explain what Doris Lessing was talking about - that is, why many people get happier as they get older.

WALDINGER: Yes.

RAZ: Because trying to do a study tracking the entire scope of a human life is actually a really hard thing to do, right?

WALDINGER: They're really hard to do. They take tremendous persistence. Funding is always about to dry up. You know, the investigators get distracted. There's just so many reasons why most longitudinal studies fall apart before the 10-year mark.

RAZ: Which is why it's so amazing that since the 1930s, a group of scientists at Harvard, led most recently by Robert Waldinger, have been working on something called the Harvard Study of Adult Development. And it's the longest study of adult life ever done, a detailed, systematic study of 700 men over 75 years of life, looking at every aspect of their health.

WALDINGER: Physical health, mental health, work life, relationship functioning - and then as people have gotten older - aging, retirement.

RAZ: And all in an effort to figure out - what was it again?

WALDINGER: It was - originally, the Harvard part was funded by W.T. Grant, the department store magnate, because he wanted to know what the characteristics were that made for good department store managers.

RAZ: Wow.

WALDINGER: (Laughter) That was his interest in funding this stuff.

RAZ: He was looking for future department store managers.

WALDINGER: He was.

RAZ: Man.

WALDINGER: (Laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: OK. But after that, the study went on and on and eventually became what it is today, 78 years later, an unprecedented source of scientific wisdom about what it takes to thrive in old age. Robert Waldinger described the study and its results on the TED Stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

WALDINGER: Since 1938, we've tracked the lives of two groups of men. The first group started in the study when they were sophomores at Harvard College. They all finish college during World War II. And then most went off to serve in the war.

And the second group that we've followed was a group of boys from Boston's poorest neighborhoods. Most lived in tenements, many without hot and cold running water.

To get the clearest pictures of these lives, we interview them in their living rooms. We get their medical records from their doctors. We draw their blood. We scan their brains. We talk to their children. We videotape them talking with their wives about their deepest concerns.

And when, about a decade ago, we finally asked the wives if they would join us as members of the study, many of the women said, you know, it's about time.

(LAUGHTER)

WALDINGER: So what have we learned from the tens of thousands of pages of information that we've generated on these lives? The clearest message that we get from this 75-year study is this - good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: This is amazing. Like, this is what you - all of this data kind of filters down into this one key insight, right? What is it about relationships - about good relationships - that make us live longer and be happier? What is it about that thing?

WALDINGER: Well, what's not a surprise is that relationships keep us happier. What is a surprise, or at least was to us, was that they keep us physically healthier. And there are lots of ideas - hypotheses - about why that is.

So one idea is that if you are in happier relationships, the body is less stressed. Another is that chronic stress or loneliness sets up certain patterns of turning off some genes, turning on other genes, that make you more able to withstand external threat. We have some ideas about - evolutionarily, why this might be useful - why it might have been useful.

One of the things that we are trying to test is how exactly it is that childhood stressors and loneliness and difficult relationships get under the skin and into the body. And so that's a big part of our current work.

RAZ: And so, I mean, a good relationship doesn't necessarily mean that. It's a relationship free of conflict or without problems, or that - or does it?

WALDINGER: No, exactly. No, it doesn't. It turns out that, you know, arguing in relationships is not a problem, as long as you have a kind of bedrock of affection and positive regard. That's what's most important.

RAZ: So guy in my Facebook feed with, like, thousands of friends is not going to live longer than me?

WALDINGER: No.

RAZ: This is not what we're talking about here?

WALDINGER: Now, as far as we know, it's not what we're talking about. It's really the people you feel you can count on when times get hard. So there are people who are not partnered - don't live with anybody - but have close relationships.

They have people they feel they can call in the middle of the night if they were scared or sick. And that's really the glue that both connects people and seems to keep people healthier.

RAZ: Now that you have all that information, do you - I don't know - do you feel like you've become wiser?

WALDINGER: No, I don't think of myself as a wise person. And, in fact, I'm always amazed when people want to know what I have to say because my experience is - well, gee, if I can think of it, it can't be that wise.

RAZ: (Laughter).

WALDINGER: (Laughter) Seriously. But I do look to other people for wisdom. And I've come to understand that we get carried away. We get distracted from the really important things - and that what we can do for each other is remind each other of what really matters and that that's wisdom.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

WALDINGER: This message that good, close relationships are good for our health and well-being - this is wisdom that's as old as the hills. Why is this so hard to get and so easy to ignore? Relationships are messy, and they're complicated. And the hard work of tending to family and friends - it's not sexy or glamorous. It's also lifelong. It never ends.

The people in our 75-year study who were the happiest in retirement were the people who had actively worked to replace workmates with new playmates. But over and over, over these 75 years, our study has shown that the people who fared the best were the people who leaned into relationships with family, with friends, with community.

It might be something as simple as replacing screen time with people time or livening up a stale relationship by doing something new together - long walks or date nights - or reaching out to that family member who you haven't spoken to in years because those all-too-common family feuds take a terrible toll on the people who hold the grudges.

I'd like to close with a quote from Mark Twain. There isn't time so brief as life for bickerings, apologies, heartburnings, callings to account. There is only time for loving and but an instant, so to speak, for that.

(APPLAUSE)

RAZ: Dr. Robert Waldinger. He leads the Harvard Study of Adult Development, the longest study of adult life, ever. By the way, there are just a handful of original participants still alive from that study. But Robert's team will continue to study their kids - some 2,000 of them. You can check out his full talk at ted.com or on the TED app.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE WISDOM OF TIME")

THE SUPREMES: (Singing) The wisdom of time. A baby crawls before he walks. He coos and mumbles before he talks. As the world turns, we live and learn with the wisdom of time.

RAZ: Hey, thanks for listening to our show on wisdom. Our production staff here at NPR includes Jeff Rogers, Brent Baughman, Meghan Keane, Neva Grant and Sanaz Meshkinpour, with help this week from Maria Paz Gutierrez and Daniel Shucan (ph).

Our partners at TED are Chris Anderson, Kelly Stoetzel and Janet Lee. I'm Guy Raz. And you've been listening to ideas worth spreading right here on the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

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