An American psychiatrist and professor at Harvard Medical School, Dr. Robert J. Waldinger is the fourth director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development. For 75 years, the study tracked the lives of two groups of men. It currently follows the development of the men’s children and aims to identify the main factors that influence their health and wellbeing. This study’s unique advantage is that it is based on a real-time monitoring of life events as they unfold through time, instead of on people recalling past memories who might not remember everything exactly how it really was. However, this research design also raises many challenges because people drop out after one or more years, researchers give up or change their interests, and funding dries up.
“If you would invest now in your future self, where would you put your time and energy?” — this is the central question that Dr. Waldinger starts his presentation with.
00:35: A survey among millennials shows that more than 80 % consider their primary life goal is to get rich. The second most common goal is to become famous. These principles are also visible in today‘s society that promotes the idea that the more time people invest in their careers, the happier they will be.
02:03: Dr. Waldinger presents the Harvard Study of Adult Development, its main research areas (people’s work life, home life, and health), and the 724 men initially included in the study. Of these participants, 60 are still alive and are over 90 years old. The research included two subgroups: the first was a group who started the study when they were sophomores at Harvard and the second a group of boys from one of Boston’s poorest neighborhoods, most from dysfunctional families with a low quality of life. The research team regularly performed medical examinations, brain scans, and laboratory analyses; conducted interviews with them and their entourage; videotaped their interactions within the family; and carried out many other activities.
06:00: Dr. Waldinger summarizes the outcome of the tremendous amount of information gathered throughout the years: “The lessons are not about wealth, fame, or working harder and harder. Good relationships are what keeps us healthy and happy.”
Loneliness is one of the major factors that influence the quality of life. People who are the most socially connected to their friends, family, and community are happier, physically healthier, and live longer.
The quality of the relationships matters, and conflict with the people around us negatively impacts our health.
08:10: Based on the information they have available about the study participants at the age of 50, the researchers tried to see if they could predict who “would grow into a happy, healthy octogenarian.” The results showed that it wasn’t their cholesterol levels that predicted how they were going to grow old, but how satisfied they were in their relationships. People who were the most content and had fulfilling relationships at the age of 50 were the healthiest at age 80. People who had better relationships were also able to keep a positive mindset when faced with physical pain than those in unhappy relationships, whose physical pain was exacerbated by the emotional suffering.
09:09: Good relationships also protect the brain. Being in a secure relationship in your 80s helps your memory to stay sharper longer.
10:16: Despite being so important, the impact of relationships is, most of the time, ignored. People choose not to invest the time and energy necessary to build and maintain them. Most of the time, this happens because people prefer quick fixes and don’t want to deal with tending to family, friends, and other people, which is a lifelong effort. However, the study shows that people who actively work on their relationships with their families, friends, and community were those who had both healthy and happy lives.
11:20: What does all this mean for people in their 20s? They might replace screen time with people time, revive stale relationships by doing new things together, or reach out to neglected family members.
Dr. Waldinger’s conclusions are also supported by Dr. Ellsworth Wareham’s studies of the Blue Zones (areas where people live longer than the general population). Besides a supporting community and positive relationships, Dr. Wareham pinpoints a plant-based diet and regular exercise as the major factors that extend life expectancy and promote health.