A New Formula for Happiness
The happiness we seek can require investing earlier than we think—and may help us align our expectations and reality at the end of life.
We often follow a misguided formula for happiness—pushing us toward material wealth and other worldly successes. But when our expectations set us down the wrong path, it may be time to reorient ourselves around something new: universal happiness principles we can practice at any age.
In our finale episode of this season, a conversation with psychiatrist Robert Waldinger provides a scientific insight into key elements for happy living, whatever your age.
This episode was produced by Rebecca Rashid and is hosted by Arthur Brooks. Editing by A.C. Valdez and Claudine Ebeid. Fact-check by Ena Alvarado. Engineering by Matthew Simonson.
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This transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Rebecca Rashid: Arthur, was there some point in your life where you realized that you weren’t where you wanted to be?
Arthur C. Brooks: Well, yeah, of course. Many times, like all of us. Maybe every day. I’m not sure.
But in my 20s I remember when I realized that my childhood dream wasn’t going to lead me where I thought it was. Since I was a little kid, all I cared about was classical music. I wanted to be a professional French horn player.
I went pro, and I was playing, and it was great. And I had this big dream that I was going to get better and better and better and better, because that’s what the world tells you. You’re going to get better and better. And I didn’t.
And so I figured out that I needed to make some big life changes, but that was tricky. That was hard. I just threw in the towel and went and got a Ph.D. and became a college professor. And every night for a long time, and still today, I still dream I’m up on stage playing a concert, and it’s better than ever. And the orchestra’s cranking it up, and we’re doing great and I’m doing my best work. And then I wake up and find out: Nope, no you’re not.
My guess is that most people who are listening to a podcast called How to Build a Happy Life—they’re looking for a formula for a happy life. Just going out on a limb here. And the reason that it’s elusive is because they’re following a bogus formula, which I was for many years.
It’s a very simple, seductive formula that says “love things,” which is a way to measure your own success. Use people, because they’re instrumental in your success. And worship yourself, because everything revolves around you.
And that is almost the perfect formula for misery. And, you know, that’s one of the main reasons that I couldn’t get my mind around being anything other than the world’s greatest French horn player, as absurd as that sounds.
Rashid: Arthur and I sat down with Robert Waldinger, the head of the Harvard Study of Adult Development—one of the longest-running studies of human happiness on record.
Brooks: The data from Waldinger’s study, which began all the way back in 1938, have transformed our knowledge of human happiness.
Rashid: In our season-finale episode, we hope to parse out the key happiness lessons at every stage of life and explore how to adjust our expectations—and our actions—accordingly.
Robert Waldinger: It started with people in their teenage years and has studied them all the way into old age. And now we’re studying their children. And to study the same lives for that length of time is virtually unheard of in the history of science.
Brooks: Let’s talk about the big picture of what you’re finding in this study.
Waldinger: The first one from our study is: You need to take care of your body like you’re going to need it for 100 years. And if you do that, you end up much more likely to be happy, as well as well. And that means exercise. It means eating well. It means when you can, get regular health care. Getting enough sleep.
But the second thing is a little more surprising; at least it was to us. And that’s that the people who end up not just the happiest but the healthiest are the people who have more social connections and warmer social connections. Connections of all kinds—not just intimate partners, but friends and work colleagues and casual relationships. All of that adds up to a happier and healthier life as you get older.
Rashid: What do you tell someone in young adulthood who is sort of trained away from relationships and told that that’s something to focus on at a later time in the future?
Waldinger: I think what we see often is that when we’re young, we get the message that if you just work really hard now, you can defer the emphasis on relationships. And what our data say to us is, “No, you can’t.”
Brooks: We interviewed on the show Omri Gillath. And he was very clear: Don’t put off love. Do not postpone love. It’s an iron law of happiness as far as he’s concerned. Are you on the same plane?
Waldinger: Yes. And in fact, one of the things my predecessor, George Vaillant, said is that maturity involves learning not to push love away, either through neglect or through actively pushing love away.
Rashid: But aren’t most people in young adulthood struggling with immaturity? How do you channel that wisdom into action at such an early age?
Waldinger: Well, immaturity is relative, right? I mean, I’m struggling with immaturity. I still have to take myself in hand and say, Do the wise thing, Bob, because sometimes my instincts pull me in a direction I know is not going to go well.
I’ve heard one marriage guru talk about the idea that some of us grow up with our partners, and some of us grow up and then find our partners. So these are different developmental paths.
Rashid: There are also so many changes in the romantic landscape when you’re talking about choice. Young people today who’ve come up with so many creative ways to build a robust social world because partnership is not in their family tradition; they weren’t raised religious, whatever it may be. A lot of people are polyamorous, nonmonogamous. There are all sorts of ways that people choose to conduct their intimate lives.
So for people that don’t see marriage or long-term monogamous partnership in their future—will they be missing out on this core fundamental relationship that you need to have a sense of well-being?
Waldinger: You’re getting at this basic question of what is the essence of what people need to be well and to feel well. And you’re right that it’s certainly not about a marriage license, and it’s not about cohabitation.
What we think it is about is an attachment to another person. And a sense that another person is there for you, particularly when you need them. We think of relationships as safety nets, as stress regulators.
So I’ll give you an example. Let’s say you have something really upsetting happen during the day. When you go home, let’s say there’s somebody at home or on the phone, or you meet up for a drink—and that person is a really good listener, and you can tell them what happened. And maybe they offer some reflection; maybe they just listen. But often you can literally feel your body calm down.
Stress induces what we call the fight-or-flight response, where the body revs up literally to flee because there’s danger or to meet a challenge. And then there are circulating stress hormones that stay elevated. Blood pressure stays mildly elevated. And that’s how unregulated stress can slowly wear down multiple body systems: the joints, the cardiovascular system, the pancreas, all of these systems. That’s why the diseases of aging may come sooner for people who are chronically stressed, chronically isolated, in the midst of unhappy relationships, much of their lives.
Brooks: You have patients of all different ages. Now let’s talk about a 42-year-old. A person who has kind of an average life, married, a kid or two, a job, a mortgage, a lot of tensions, a lot of pressures, but not the same tensions and pressures that come with the mid-20s. What should our 42-year-old listener be thinking about right now to make the best happiness hygiene decisions?
Waldinger: Forty-two: We literally know from science that it is starting that period of time when the awareness of mortality becomes more vivid, gradually. That when we get into our 40s, death is no longer as much of an abstraction.
But it’s often that time of reevaluation. Of: “Okay, this is what I’ve devoted my time to so far. This is who I’ve become. Do I want to keep going with this?” And so some people abruptly or gradually make changes. Some people stay the course because this is working for them. This is what they want.
Brooks: And I know a lot of people in their 40s who say, “Life passed me by, and I’m just—you know, I was going to work until I die.” Is there something around work addiction that you often see for people in their 40s that really compromises their ability to become happy later?
Waldinger: I will say that when we asked people in our study when they were in their 80s to look back, we said, “What are your biggest regrets?” Many of the men—and remember, in that generation, it was primarily the men who worked outside the home—many of them said, “I wish I hadn’t devoted so much time to work and achievement. I wish I had spent more time with the people I care about.”
And many of the women in that generation who were primarily at home—now, that also meant community activists and volunteers and many other things. But many of them said, “I wish that I hadn’t worried so much about what other people thought of me, and I had done more of what I felt was true to me.” And so I think those are two of the big regrets that emerge from our study.
There was a developmental theorist, Bernice Neugarten, who had a theory about being on time or off time. Her sense was that, developmentally, we care a lot about what our community around us considers normal for the age that we are at, and that it affects us if we feel we are “off time”—if we’re not doing the things right now that other people our age are supposed to be doing. And that is a social influence that’s inevitable.
And so: to pull back from that and to try to listen to yourself, I think, is essential. Because it is your life. Nobody else is going to live your life. And so the world can tell you, “You ought to be doing this at this point in your life.” But you cannot let that be the thing that is your sole driver.
There’s a quote from Joseph Campbell that I love. He said: “If the path before you is clear, you’re probably on somebody else’s path.” And it’s really important to remember that just because everybody else says, “You should be doing this at this time in your life,” you have got to do that internal looking that you’re doing.
People ask me things like, “Well, wait, are you crazy? Why aren’t you retired now? You’re 71 years old!” But my internal sense is: I want to be engaged in these things still.
Brooks: So give a little bit of advice to those folks to make sure that by the time they do get to 91, or however many years they get, that they are as happy as their lot can give them.
Waldinger: So the basic advice is stay engaged in the world. What we know is that when people stay engaged—physically, intellectually, socially—they stay more fit, they stay happier, their brains stay sharper. It doesn’t matter how, but: Stay engaged with other people, and stay engaged physically so that you’re physically active.
Learn a language; play an instrument. It could be singing in a chorus. If you are not academically inclined, it doesn’t have to be academic.
One of the challenges of being older is you can begin to feel like you don’t matter anymore, because our society is constructed now in such a way that many people in this culture, as they get older, don’t find a role for themselves. So, finding ways to feel like you matter.
Rashid: Let’s say you’re receiving this wisdom too late, or what feels like too late. How can people with a lot of accumulated relationship regrets sort of make peace at the end of life with the relationships they maybe didn’t keep up with in the way that they wanted? Or they weren’t able to show love in the way that they wanted? Is there something that they can do to reconcile that with the other person, and perhaps with themselves as well?
Waldinger: To go back to someone and say, “I’ve missed you, and I’d love to spend a little more time.” Or “I’m sorry I haven’t been around much.” You know, there are ways to do that—to make amends, if you will. When we think about being really hard on ourselves, looking back on our lives with a lot of regret—remember that none of us gets up in the morning and says, “I’m going to do a bad job on my life today. That’s my aspiration.” We’re all doing what we can in the moment. And sometimes it’s not as we wish we would have done.
Brooks: Many of the concepts we’ve covered in this series create kind of a tension in our lives. There’s lots of things that we’re supposed to be doing, but they’re not always compatible with each other, right? Sometimes work: which is great, it’s a great way to express yourself. It’s an enormous source of satisfaction if you do it right. But it can get in the way of your relationships.
We all know that we have limited time, and then sometimes that means loneliness or isolation. And loneliness, and our need for relationships, can create addictions— suboptimal behavior, dangerous behavior sometimes even.
In other words: Balance is hard, but that’s really what it’s all about. If we can figure out how to get that balance, a happy life won’t be elusive. Now, one quick parenthetical to this, which is: I’m making it sound like we can find the perfect balance and find ultimate happiness. Don’t be fooled by that. Happiness is not really a destination. It’s a journey of balancing and rebalancing and making progress and feeling pain and resolving that pain and being fully alive.
So this is something that I want everybody to remember. You may not be the happiest person in the world, but you can be a happier person. Really, we should call this series How to Build a Happi-ER Life, because that’s really what the struggle is all about. Find your path. Invest properly. Here’s the right formula: Love people. Use things. Worship the divine. Figure out how to do it. And a happier life will be yours. That’s what I wish for you.