Dr. Robert Waldinger
[00:00:00] Hello and welcome to another episode of a Dad’s Path podcast. I’m Will Braunstein. Today we have a very special guest on the show. He’s a renowned psychiatrist, professor at Harvard Medical School and the director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, which is the world’s largest running study on unhappiness.
[00:00:14] He is also the author of the book, the Good Life Lessons from the World’s Longest Scientific Study of Happiness, which is widely acclaimed, recommended by experts and by myself. And most importantly for us parents. He’s a dad himself, I understand with a wealth of knowledge and insights that he’s gonna share with us on how to live a fulfilling life while juggling the joys and challenges of raising kids.
[00:00:33] So with no further ado, welcome professor Robert Waldinger. Thank you for having me. Yeah, no, thanks for joining us. I’m really excited for this conversation and, you know, can you give us a little bit about what the study’s about? I know, I understand it’s a happiness study, but maybe go into a few more details.
[00:00:50] Sure. Well, it’s actually a study of adult life. It’s a study of lifespan development, and it’s been labeled a happiness study because what we study is thriving, like what are the conditions that help people thrive as they go through their lives? I can explain the kind of setup of the study. Would that be helpful, please?
[00:01:11] Yeah. Okay. It started in 1938. We’re in our 85th year of the study, still collecting data even now, and the study started as two studies that didn’t know about each other. One study started at the Harvard Student Health Service with undergraduates, 19 year old sophomores who were thought by their deans to be fine, upstanding young men.
[00:01:34] And it was meant to be a study of normal development from adolescents into young adulthood. Of course, now we think, well, you know, if you wanna study normal development, do you study all white guys from Harvard? You don’t do that now. But then that’s what they did, and the other study was started. At Harvard Law School by a law professor Sheldon Glu and his wife, Eleanor Glu, a social worker.
[00:02:00] They were interested in juvenile delinquency, and they were particularly interested in why some children from. Not just impoverished homes, but homes that were so troubled by drug addiction and domestic violence. So many things. How did those children manage to stay out of trouble, stay on good developmental paths?
[00:02:21] So it was also a study of thriving, one very privileged group and one very underprivileged group. And 724 original participants. And then we brought in their wives, and now we’ve studied all their children, more than half of whom are women. So altogether well over 2000 lives that we’ve studied over decades.
[00:02:42] Yeah. No, that’s, that’s an amazing study. It’s great to have that longevity there where you can really, you know, trace it back and as you said, keep, keep going and what we can learn. And so just diving in then, as you said, I mean, a lot of those people in the study are parents. So what are some of the you know, initial conclusions you’ve seen or what, what are some of the connections you’ve seen between parenting and, and the study and.
[00:03:03] Well, we certainly had a lot of parents in the study. Most of our original participants had children, and most of the second generation, most of their children have children. The biggest takeaway from the study was something that surprised us. It was that the people who were the happiest but also the healthiest and lived the longest were the people who had good relationships.
[00:03:25] So that includes, Relationships with your partner, relationships with your kids, certainly with other family members, friends, workmates. It was all pointing in this direction of relationships keep us healthier as well as happier. And so that is our one big takeaway. And we, you know, we published hundreds of papers and a whole bunch of books, but if you boil it all down, that’s, that’s a big one.
[00:03:50] That’s awesome. And so let me ask another question then. Cuz in the book there’s this amazing graph I think we talked about before where yeah. Before we recorded about marital satisfaction across time, it shows, you know, this is one, one person and you’re laughing so you know what I’m talking about.
[00:04:07] Do you wanna sort of describe what the chart shows and. Yeah, well actually the graph, maybe the graph you saw was one person I, I have to look. There’s also a graph we’ve used that is thousands of couples, right? The study that we’ve done and many other studies have done this is asked people at many points in their relationship, how satisfied are you?
[00:04:30] And we’ve asked him in many different ways. We asked people the same questions about marriage eight times over 50 years, and what we find is that people are most satisfied in their relationship when they first get together, which makes sense, right? Because you know, we’re excited about our new love. And then marital satisfaction goes down when the first child is born.
[00:04:54] If a couple has children, marital satisfaction goes up again when the last child leaves. Home. This is in the United States, and marital satisfaction only goes down again if children come back to live at home. Interesting. And this is thousands of couples, not just in our study, but many other studies. It’s also in the United States.
[00:05:14] So one of the things I wanna mention is that, you know, as we know there are some cultures in which it’s. The norm to live at home, to live with your parents long after you’re 18 years old and it’s the norm even to live with your parents when you’re married. That finding that I just told you about is specific to the United States in the 20th and 21st centuries.
[00:05:38] Interesting. That makes a lot of sense. Cause I know in some cultures it is, that’s more part of the culture living with your family or moving back in or, or, or whatnot. I think what you articulated was, is right on. I mean, you get married or you’re in a relationship and things are, you know, new and you’re happy, happier, you know, just relatively speaking and yeah, the, the chart that I was looking at, you know, I think it had the birth of four kids and you see this fellow’s happiness sort of gradually draw.
[00:06:03] But then this is where it gets sort of interesting to me. It u-turns, right? It be, it’s a U and then it shoots back up and you know, looks even higher than it was at the start. And I guess the one question would be, do you think you need to have that stretching, that sort of stress to create the bonds of a strong relationship?
[00:06:20] That’s a great question and I can’t say I know the answer because couples are so different. Some couples really don’t see a drop in their relationship. Satisfaction. Well, when the kids are young and living at home. Most couples do, which is why our findings are what they are, but every couple is somewhat different.
[00:06:39] So what I don’t know, and I think it’s a great question. Do you need the kind of stresses of child rearing and other stresses that couples face as they go through early adulthood and midlife? Do you need that in order to forge a stronger bond? I can’t say that’s the case, but I know that many of you know in my own life, I mean, I’ve been through some really hard times.
[00:07:00] My wife and I have gone through them together. I’m sure that’s made our relationship stronger, and I’m sure it’s made our commitment to each other stronger. Partly because what you come to see is, oh my gosh, it’s so important that I have this other person there with me when difficult times come along.
[00:07:19] And one of the things you realize as you get more into adult life is, Difficult times happen to everybody. They come along in every life. So I think in that sense, many of us come to value the support of having a partner in a way that we might not have valued it when we were in our twenties and hadn’t had so much life experience.
[00:07:40] I think that’s right on, that’s really wise and, you know, look forward to experiencing that more as I, as I, as I grow and as as we all grow, you know? Cause I think another common theme amongst dads with young kids, and you know, parents, but this is mostly dads listening now, is as we said, you know, your marital sac.
[00:07:58] Satisfaction goes down. I think, you know, maybe overall life satisfaction. I’m not sure where it goes because it’s complicated when you have kids, right? You can’t be as selfish anymore. You’re, you’re pulled in a lot of directions. I mean, you know, all the, you’re nodding, you know, all the things. I’ve lived them.
[00:08:11] Yes, you’ve lived them. So what’s the role of sort of sacrifice, if that’s the right word, in being a, in a dad? And do you have practical tips that you could kind of tie back from what you’ve learned either personally or from the study that might help? You know, let, let me back up a little and talk about different flavors of happiness.
[00:08:29] So they do research on, well, what is happiness? And what they find is that happiness pretty much falls into two big buckets. One is, it’s called hedonic. Wellbeing comes from hedonism. And it means, am I having fun? Now, is this a great party? Am I having fun having this conversation with you? And that’s a moment to moment thing.
[00:08:49] I’m enjoying my conversation with you right now, but an hour from now, something really upsetting might happen and I won’t feel that kind of hedonic happiness, right? So fluctuates. Then the other type of happiness is what’s called you demonic wellbeing from the Greek. And it, it means the sense that life has meaning and purpose and is worthwhile, right?
[00:09:11] So it’s much longer term. And the best example I got of the difference was from a dad who reads to his child every night before bed and he said, okay, I’ve had this horrible day at work. I am exhausted and my kid is. Asking me to read the book Goodnight Moon, for the seventh time. I’m saying to myself, you know, am I having fun?
[00:09:34] No. But is this the most worthwhile thing I could do with my time right now? Absolutely. And so that’s the difference between hedonic wellbeing. Am I having fun now? And you demonic? This is meaningful. This is worthwhile. And what the research shows us is that we all want some of both. But people are different in how much they prioritize one or the other.
[00:09:57] So your question about sacrifice, that’s kind of that you demonic, I’m doing this because I want to make a contribution in the world. I wanna make a contribution as a dad, wherever it might be. And that, that’s a really powerful part of that you demonic wellbeing. That sense of my life is worthwhile. Yeah, no, that’s a great distinction between the, the two types of happiness there.
[00:10:22] I think the, the question is almost how you get how you move. And I know it’s not an easy answer, but if, if you have ideas how to go from the hedonistic or the like, gosh, I really need to work out, or gosh, I really need to do X, y, or Z, which is, you know, for me personally versus the, you demonic, did I say that right?
[00:10:37] Yeah. You demonic. Yeah, you demonic happiness where it’s, you know, you know, that’s right. That’s the, this is the best use of my time right now is spending, is playing with my kid or whatever it is. And it’s like, But at the same time, I need 20 minutes. Yeah. Well, and and you know, what you’re pointing to is it’s not just hedonism lo, so the, I need 20 minutes or I need to work out.
[00:10:59] That’s also self care. And one of the things we know is that we can’t sacrifice. Endlessly. We just can’t, we’ll burn out. We won’t be any good to our child, to our partner, right? If we have nothing left in the tank. So there’s a really vital function of taking care of ourselves that’s not hedonistic. It might be pleasurable to go work out, but it also might be refueling.
[00:11:23] And you know, it’s taking care of your body. You need to be a healthy parent to have a relatively healthy, and hopefully long enough life that you get to see your kids grow up. Right. So I just wanna name that, that, that self-care is not selfish. Self-care is a way to keep yourself strong and available and able to give as you go through your life.
[00:11:45] Absolutely. And, and we, we talk about that all the time. And you can’t pour from an empty cup, right? Like you can’t be a super patient loving, I mean, you can, but it’s just really, really a lot harder when you don’t have the. The gas in the tank. What did you find from the study in terms of connections between, you know, self-care and happiness?
[00:12:02] Were, were you able to draw any conclusions there? Or, and I don’t know how, how you measured self-care. I mean, is that, I think about it as like meditation and physical health. You know, we didn’t measure self-care, cuz that’s more of a modern concept we do now with the second generation some, but particularly with the world, world War II generation, our original participants, self-care wasn’t defined as a thing.
[00:12:25] Now, what we did ask about was exercise and diet and. Whether you were obese, whether you smoked, whether you abused alcohol or drugs, and what we found was that that kind of taking care of yourself, your health mattered hugely. I mean, boy, that was such a strong predictor of who was gonna age well and who was gonna get sick.
[00:12:47] And who was gonna live longer versus who was gonna die earlier. So in the kind of almost medical version of self care, it mattered enormously. What we didn’t ask about as much was meditation, yoga, you know, the, the kinds of things we think about now as sustaining our wellbeing. Which makes a lot of sense.
[00:13:08] I mean, is different generation and it, I mean, it sounds like though your study has, you know, evolved yet kept a lot of the same, you know, characteristics to make sure that it keeps going. That makes a lot of sense. And so, you know, you mentioned relationships being a powerful indicator in your study.
[00:13:22] You mentioned just now, you know, medically taking your, your health seriously. What, what were some of the other, you know, takeaways you found so far you’re saying, Hey, these are the top three or five things to focus on. Certainly it was taking care of your relationships even while you’re being a dad and while you’re being a worker.
[00:13:42] And you know, and, and I think that’s the complicated thing because you know, when we are in that fatherhood phase, right? Often it’s young adulthood, midlife. And that’s also the phase where we’re trying to make our way in the working world. And sometimes it’s a phase where we’ve got aging parents who need us, right?
[00:14:00] And so there are a lot of demands. The difficulty is finding time for friendships, finding time for that brother or sister who you’re close to. You know, you keep saying, oh, it’s okay. I, I just don’t have time now. I’m gonna put it off. And I think what our study says is, don’t do that. Really make the effort to keep it in your sights.
[00:14:21] You know, to reach out to that person in your life, send ’em a text, send ’em an email, call ’em on the phone, make plans to go for a walk or have a cup of coffee. Make sure you do that. Don’t leave it to chance because what we saw was a lot of really good relationships would wither away just because of neglect and the time when we’re more likely to neglect our relationships than any other time is that time of parenthood and midlife.
[00:14:49] That’s so smart. That’s just to interject real quick. We say that all the time. I mean, cause I hear that from dads all the time. It’s like, no one reaches out to me. I’m so lonely. Like my friends are gone and I’m like, did you text your friends? Did you email? It works both ways. Remember it works both ways and you know, you don’t need to have a hundred percent hit rate.
[00:15:04] You know, you get it. One or two say yes, and that’s enough. You know, and, and I’ll tell you what I’ve started doing. When I give talks about this, I’ve started challenging people in the audience. I’ve said, okay, right now, think of somebody you wanna connect with, who you just haven’t been in touch with for a while.
[00:15:21] Take out your phone, send them a text. Just say hi was thinking of you, just wanted to connect. And so I get everybody to do it in the audience. And then later on in the question and answer, I’ll ask people, did anybody get a response? So many hands go up saying, oh my gosh, my friend was so glad I reached out.
[00:15:38] This other friend had just had surgery and he’s feeling kind of alone. Or, I have a dinner date for next week. You know, so, so like to your point, like not everybody’s gonna respond positively, but you’ll be amazed at how many people are happy that you pinged them. I love that. That’s a great challenge. You know, and I should, I should actually, listeners now, I give you that challenge.
[00:15:58] You know, think of someone, don’t wait and send ’em a text, send ’em an email. Yeah, I like that. I like that a lot. So relationships, taking care of your health. Working through difficulties. Facing toward difficulties, rather than turning away from them. So one of the things we know from our work and from lots of other studies is that, you know, it’s easy to kind of say, well, I’ll just ignore this.
[00:16:20] Difficult problem. You know, I just won’t talk to that person if we’re having trouble or I’ll just let that thing go. I won’t pay attention to it. And what we know is that the people who face a difficulty as it comes up and do their best to manage it, to deal with it, to work out problems, those people are much more successful both at home and at work.
[00:16:41] Than the people who sweep things under the rug. And in some ways, that sounds obvious, it sounds trivial, but you would be surprised at how many of us say, oh, I’m just not gonna deal with that. And what we find is that usually that strategy comes back to haunt you. No, absolutely. That’s, that’s the saying or the book Eat the Frog.
[00:16:58] Right? Like that’s first thing you do each day. You know, do the, the thing you wanna do, the least that you need to do. And that makes a lot of sense. You need to face difficulties. I mean, really what I think another word for that might be, Kind of building resilience, a re resiliency, and, or at least the way I, I think about that is how does this work for my kids, right?
[00:17:15] How do I build strong kids, you know, kids who are not afraid to go for failure, basically, right? I mean, right. And also kids who are willing to deal with problems. So let’s say your friend did something that made you mad or hurt you, that you don’t just go away, that you, we help our kids learn strategies.
[00:17:35] Well, how could I try to work this out with my friend? Or I failed that science test. Well, how could I, rather than just going and hiding and saying, well, okay, I’m not good at science. I’m just not gonna do it. What if you figured out a way to help your child face toward the problem and try to get better at science?
[00:17:52] Right. You know, so it’s, it’s, it’s those models that we show our kids of meeting the challenge rather than turning away from it. Honestly that that is a challenge also in itself saying, you know, when do I push my child? Versus when do you know them saying, no, I’m not interested in this. Or, you know, you’re pushing me this is not fun anymore.
[00:18:11] And dad back off kind of thing. Yeah, that’s a really good point. And you know, the fact is that we don’t wanna push our kids into things that they don’t care about. The exception is that sometimes kids do have to master certain basics. So I don’t wanna know the multiplication tables. Well, it’ll be really useful if you do.
[00:18:29] I don’t wanna know how to read that you kind of are gonna have to do. So let’s help you as much as we can, figure out a way, a least painful way to help you learn to read. So there’s some things we say to our kids, look, we really have to meet this challenge and we’re gonna help you meet it. On the other hand, the.
[00:18:47] The idea that, well, you have to be a doctor because I’m a doctor and everybody in our family has always been a doctor. No way does that end well. So it really is a, a matter of discernment. Like what are the things that a child needs to face and we’ll get stronger for facing? And what are the things that are really my agenda as a parent that the child doesn’t have to do?
[00:19:09] The child can take a different path. That’s the right distinction for sure. I mean, the other when we bring up sometimes is like learning to swim, you know, that’s just a basic skill and it’s a potential survival skill. So, hey, you know, like it or not, that’s one we’re gonna learn and, you know. Yeah, exactly.
[00:19:25] You know, we were talking before I live in Colorado and a lot of people would argue that skiing is the, is the same thing. And I haven’t taken, my kids have no interest. So it’s a basic skill. So far we’ve skipped that. But, but people, many people go through this life without ever skiing down a ski slope, and they’re just fine.
[00:19:42] Yes. You’ll, I’ll record that to play that to my buddies who gimme a hard time every time they find out. Yeah. Yeah. Well this is great. The one, the one topic I wanna circle back to as we kind of wrap up here is relationship with your partner. You know, with your spouse, and we were talking about some of the challenges that come up and how, you know, your SAT marital satisfaction goes up and down.
[00:20:02] And do you have any practical tips to kind of both to keep the relationship as happy as possible, but then also I’d be curious, have you seen anything about divorce in your study? Has that gone up over time? Has that fluctuated and how does that affect happiness? Divorce rates have definitely gone up between the first and the second generation of our study because divorce was more taboo socially in the World War II generation and divorce rates have gone up a lot.
[00:20:27] There are lots of explanations for that, sociological re all kinds of reasons that that I won’t go into, but it’s certainly increased and I think that the, the real question that takes a lot of discernment is when is it important to step away from a relationship? Versus when is this important to really try to work things out because you’ve invested so much in a partnership with someone else that you don’t wanna let it go lightly.
[00:20:53] And you know, I think that what we find is that it is worth trying, you know, so I, I’ve done a bunch of couples therapy in my practice and my wife is an expert in couples therapy and couples therapy can really help, not every couple, but lots of couples. But I would say that, you know, in terms of working on keeping relationships healthy, that a couple of things matter.
[00:21:15] One is staying in touch with each other’s lives. So when, when you are parenting young kids, you are a tag team. It’s like, okay, you make dinner and I’ll give the baths, or, you know, whatever it might be. But it’s, and, and often you, you cease to have time to just check in and say, what’s going on in your life?
[00:21:33] How’s your work? What was your day like? All that. The couples who do the best at that, as I’m sure you’ve talked about, is are the couples who make time. My wife and I had a date night every Thursday night. We hired a babysitter. She came no matter what, we had to actively cancel her in order to get her not to come.
[00:21:50] And that meant that we didn’t have to plan it. We didn’t have to arrange it. We just knew she would show up at, you know, 6:00 PM She would feed the kids, she’d put them to bed, and we would do whatever we wanted. And boy did that make a difference in our staying in touch with each other. And you could just go for a walk regularly, something.
[00:22:08] So that’s one thing. And the other is trying to maintain curiosity about your partner. You know, this person who you feel like you know so well, you know what they’re gonna say. You know, their every mood. Really make an effort to notice stuff that’s new. Stuff that you haven’t noticed before about your partner.
[00:22:25] And that kind of curiosity will be so appreciated by the other person. We all appreciate somebody’s interest in us, so you can actively cultivate that for yourself in your relationship. That’s awesome. No, I was gonna ask exactly. I mean, it’s hard, not always easy, excuse me, to cultivate curiosity when you’ve been in a relationship for a long time, but you just hit the nail on the head and it’s as simple as noticing new stuff and then where you started as well.
[00:22:48] You know, where you had a date night every Thursday, and you know, if you can do that, that’s awesome. I bet, you know, we say the same thing, schedule it, just schedule a time. Maybe it’s Sunday afternoon, whatever it is, but you need to have a block of time, no kids to connect, make it automatic, make it and you know, arrange it so that you don’t have to think about it.
[00:23:04] It just happens. Yeah, and it’s counterintuitive, I think to a lot of people cuz it’s not sexy to schedule, you know, like, hey, let’s have a meeting. Like, you know, I’m scheduling meetings with my colleague and I’m scheduling a meeting with my partner who I’m, you know, my loving partner. It’s just, you know, it’s sort of a weird in your head, but it’s made, for me personally, it made such a big difference having those meetings and having just a regular schedule as well where we could reflect.
[00:23:25] Yeah. Awesome, Dr. Waldinger, this has been a fantastic conversation but we barely touched your book. I mean, I couldn’t recommend it more. It’s called The Good Life Lessons from the World’s Longest Scientific Study of Happiness and a lot of just great ideas and tips in there. But I don’t know, I think where we’re talking about the happiness, where you’re talking about the different types of happiness, and that’s such a key part for dads, is thinking about the balance between the, the hedonistic and the EU demonic levels of happiness or types of happiness and, and kind of keeping those straight in your head and doing the best we can do, I guess, you know, any, any closing words for us?
[00:23:56] No, just that I really appreciate you doing this podcast and having a place where people can hear about and think about where they’re going with their lives and their relationships, cuz it really matters to do this kind of reflection and then see how you can keep making it better. It’s an ongoing process of making it better.
[00:24:12] That is very wise word to end on. It’s ongoing. You know, it’s not something you start and then, hey, we’re a perfect relationship. Kids change, you change, everything changes. So you, that’s why you need to keep being in touch. Well, thanks again Dr. Waldinger, and until next time, we’ll be in touch. All right.
[00:24:26] This was a pleasure. Thanks for having me.