Placeholder Image

Subtitles section Play video

  • What keeps us healthy and happy

  • as we go through life?

  • If you were going to invest now

  • in your future best self,

  • where would you put your time and your energy?

  • There are lots of answers out there.

  • We're bombarded with images of what's most important in life.

  • The media are filled with stories of people who are rich

  • and famous and building empires at work.

  • And we believe those stories.

  • There was a recent survey of millennials

  • asking them what their most important life goals were,

  • and over 80 percent said

  • that a major life goal for them was to get rich.

  • And another 50 percent of those same young adults

  • said that another major life goal

  • was to become famous.

  • (Laughter)

  • And we're constantly told to lean in to work, to push harder

  • and achieve more.

  • We're given the impression that these are the things that we need to go after

  • in order to have a good life.

  • But is that true?

  • Is that really what keeps people happy as they go through life?

  • Pictures of entire lives,

  • of the choices that people make and how those choices work out for them,

  • those pictures are almost impossible to get.

  • Most of what we know about human life

  • we know from asking people to remember the past,

  • and as we know, hindsight is anything but 20/20.

  • We forget vast amounts of what happens to us in life,

  • and sometimes memory is downright creative.

  • Mark Twain understood this.

  • He's quoted as saying,

  • "Some of the worst things in my life never happened."

  • (Laughter)

  • And research shows us that we actually remember the past more positively

  • as we get older.

  • I'm reminded of a bumper sticker that says,

  • "It's never too late to have a happy childhood."

  • (Laughter)

  • But what if we could watch entire lives

  • as they unfold through time?

  • What if we could study people from the time that they were teenagers

  • all the way into old age

  • to see what really keeps people happy and healthy?

  • We did that.

  • The Harvard Study of Adult Development

  • may be the longest study of adult life that's ever been done.

  • For 75 years, we've tracked the lives of 724 men,

  • year after year, asking about their work, their home lives, their health,

  • and of course asking all along the way without knowing how their life stories

  • were going to turn out.

  • Studies like this are exceedingly rare.

  • Almost all projects of this kind fall apart within a decade

  • because too many people drop out of the study,

  • or funding for the research dries up,

  • or the researchers get distracted,

  • or they die, and nobody moves the ball further down the field.

  • But through a combination of luck

  • and the persistence of several generations of researchers,

  • this study has survived.

  • About 60 of our original 724 men

  • are still alive,

  • still participating in the study,

  • most of them in their 90s.

  • And we are now beginning to study

  • the more than 2,000 children of these men.

  • And I'm the fourth director of the study.

  • 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.

  • The were from what Tom Brokaw has called "the greatest generation".

  • They all finished 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,

  • boys who were chosen for the study

  • specifically because they were from some of the most troubled

  • and disadvantaged families

  • in the Boston of the 1930s.

  • Most lived in tenements, many without hot and cold running water.

  • When they entered the study,

  • all of these teenagers were interviewed.

  • They were given medical exams.

  • We went to their homes and we interviewed their parents.

  • And then these teenagers grew up into adults

  • who entered all walks of life.

  • They became factory workers and lawyers and bricklayers and doctors,

  • one President of the United States.

  • Some developed alcoholism. A few developed schizophrenia.

  • Some climbed the social ladder

  • from the bottom all the way to the very top,

  • and some made that journey in the opposite direction.

  • The founders of this study

  • would never in their wildest dreams

  • have imagined that I would be standing here today, 75 years later,

  • telling you that the study still continues.

  • Every two years, our patient and dedicated research staff

  • calls up our men and asks them if we can send them

  • yet one more set of questions about their lives.

  • Many of the inner city Boston men ask us,

  • "Why do you keep wanting to study me? My life just isn't that interesting."

  • The Harvard men never ask that question.

  • (Laughter)

  • To get the clearest picture of these lives,

  • we don't just send them questionnaires.

  • 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)

  • So what have we learned?

  • What are the lessons that come from the tens of thousands of pages

  • of information that we've generated

  • on these lives?

  • Well, the lessons aren't about wealth or fame or working harder and harder.

  • The clearest message that we get from this 75-year study is this:

  • Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period.

  • We've learned three big lessons about relationships.

  • The first is that social connections are really good for us,

  • and that loneliness kills.

  • It turns out that people who are more socially connected

  • to family, to friends, to community,

  • are happier, they're physically healthier, and they live longer

  • than people who are less well connected.

  • And the experience of loneliness turns out to be toxic.

  • People who are more isolated than they want to be from others

  • find that they are less happy,

  • their health declines earlier in midlife,

  • their brain functioning declines sooner

  • and they live shorter lives than people who are not lonely.

  • And the sad fact is that at any given time,

  • more than one in five Americans will report that they're lonely.

  • And we know that you can be lonely in a crowd

  • and you can be lonely in a marriage,

  • so the second big lesson that we learned

  • is that it's not just the number of friends you have,

  • and it's not whether or not you're in a committed relationship,

  • but it's the quality of your close relationships that matters.

  • It turns out that living in the midst of conflict is really bad for our health.

  • High-conflict marriages, for example, without much affection,

  • turn out to be very bad for our health, perhaps worse than getting divorced.

  • And living in the midst of good, warm relationships is protective.

  • Once we had followed our men all the way into their 80s,

  • we wanted to look back at them at midlife

  • and to see if we could predict

  • who was going to grow into a happy, healthy octogenarian

  • and who wasn't.

  • And when we gathered together everything we knew about them

  • at age 50,

  • it wasn't their middle age cholesterol levels

  • that predicted how they were going to grow old.

  • It was how satisfied they were in their relationships.

  • The people who were the most satisfied in their relationships at age 50

  • were the healthiest at age 80.

  • And good, close relationships seem to buffer us

  • from some of the slings and arrows of getting old.

  • Our most happily partnered men and women

  • reported, in their 80s,

  • that on the days when they had more physical pain,

  • their mood stayed just as happy.

  • But the people who were in unhappy relationships,

  • on the days when they reported more physical pain,

  • it was magnified by more emotional pain.

  • And the third big lesson that we learned about relationships and our health

  • is that good relationships don't just protect our bodies,

  • they protect our brains.

  • It turns out that being in a securely attached relationship

  • to another person in your 80s is protective,

  • that the people who are in relationships

  • where they really feel they can count on the other person in times of need,

  • those people's memories stay sharper longer.

  • And the people in relationships

  • where they feel they really can't count on the other one,

  • those are the people who experience earlier memory decline.

  • And those good relationships, they don't have to be smooth all the time.

  • Some of our octogenarian couples could bicker with each other

  • day in and day out,

  • but as long as they felt that they could really count on the other

  • when the going got tough,

  • those arguments didn't take a toll on their memories.

  • So this message,

  • that good, close relationships are good for our health and well-being,

  • this is wisdom that's as old as the hills.

  • It's your grandmother's advice, and your pastor's.

  • Why is this so hard to get?

  • For example, with respect to wealth, we know

  • that once your basic material needs are met,

  • wealth doesn't do it.

  • If you go from making 75,000 dollars a year

  • to 75 million,

  • we know that your health and happiness will change very little,

  • if at all.

  • When it comes to fame,

  • the constant media intrusion

  • and the lack of privacy

  • make most famous people significantly less healthy.

  • It certainly doesn't keep them happier.

  • And as for working harder and harder,

  • there is that truism that nobody on their death bed

  • ever wished they had spent more time at the office.

  • (Laughter)

  • Why is this so hard to get and so easy to ignore?

  • Well, we're human.

  • What we'd really like is a quick fix,

  • something we can get

  • that'll make our lives good and keep them that way.

  • 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.

  • Just like the millennials in that recent survey,

  • many of our men when they were starting out as young adults

  • really believed that fame and wealth and high achievement

  • were what they needed to go after to have a good life.

  • But over and over, over these 75 years, our study has shown

  • that the people who fared the best were the people who leaned in to relationships,

  • with family, with friends, with community.

  • So what about you?

  • Let's say you're 25, or you're 40, or you're 60.

  • What might leaning in to relationships even look like?

  • Well, the possibilities are practically endless.

  • 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 another quote from Mark Twain.

  • More than a century ago,

  • he was looking back on his life,

  • and he wrote this:

  • "There isn't time, so brief is life,

  • for bickerings, apologies, heartburnings, callings to account.

  • There is only time for loving,