Harvard researcher, Robert Waldinger, MD, spends his days studying the science of happiness. Just in
time for the holidays, he sat down with AARP THE MAGAZINE to explain how we can give ourselves, and
others, the gift of a longer, happier life.
As the director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, which has tracked the lives of men for 80
years, Robert Waldinger, MD, loves to share surprising findings about what makes people healthy and
happy. Among them: The quality of your relationships at age 50 is a better predictor of your future
health than your cholesterol levels. And while alcoholism and smoking are top health threats, loneliness
ranks nearly as high.
In other words, “What Makes a Good Life?”—the title of Waldinger’s hugely popular TED Talk—turns
out to be…strong relationships. That’s why the holiday season, with its forced march toward
togetherness, is a great time to set your life on a better course. Waldinger, 66, a psychiatrist and Zen
priest, believes the best life is heavy on connection.
Q. Which relationships are most important to our health?
A: The research doesn’t show you have to have a ton of friends and love cocktail parties. It just means
you have some close connections. It could be one. It could be two.
Q. So what type of relationship qualifies as healthful?
A: My predecessor, George Vaillant, asked a question, on a couple of questionnaires, that I love: “Who
would you call in the middle of the night if you were sick or scared?” Some people couldn’t list anyone.
For some, though, it was a child; for some people it was a friend. For many it was their spouse. You can
fight like cats and dogs, but if you have a sense of “If I ever need my husband, he is there for me,” that’s
Q. What about these relationships helps us live longer?
A: If you sit and have a conversation about something you’re worried about, your body literally calms
down—your blood pressure might come down, your stress hormone levels might go down. There’s
some evidence that it’s not so much stress but how you manage stress that may play a big role in who
ages and who doesn’t. So now we’re bringing people into the lab and stressing them and seeing how
quickly they recover, looking at things like inflammatory cells and DNA regulation through epigenetics
Q. Does childhood influence how people handle stress later?
A: There’s a real thread between the warmth and orderliness and predictability of childhood and how
people do over time. But there are healing relationships all through life, and people who come from
terrible childhoods sometimes do well.
(by Kathleen Fifield for AARP Magazine)