Plain English with Derek Thompson - Happiness in America, Part 1: The Secret to a 'Good Life,' According to an 80-Year Study


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Today’s episode is about the longest study on happiness in US.

History and its lessons for America today.

This is the first in a two-episode Arc about happiness that we’re doing on the show this week on Friday.

I’ll be speaking with the psychiatrist about the incredible and mysterious rise in teenage anxiety in the last decade.


But first a broader, look at happiness in America, it’s wind back.

The clock to 2009.

I had I just started working as an online writer for the Atlantic magazine and I remember in one of my first month on the job, I saw the new cover story of the magazine was about this amazing research project.


I had never heard of in my life.

It was called the Harvard study of adult development.

And what this study did was for 80 years going back to the 1930s researchers had followed hundreds of young men from their teenage years.


They’d watch them grow up meet their wives have In succeed fail divorce, develop addictions, overcome addictions, find happiness, die old or Die, Young and the first class of the study, incredibly included, a bunch of Harvard undergraduates, including the President John F Kennedy.


And I remember thinking this is one of the coolest projects I had ever heard of.

Well today’s guests are that studies director and associate director, Robert Walden, GE and Mark Schultz.

They are the Authors of a new book called The Good Life about what this study should teach all of us about the secret to a long and fulfilling life.


So what is it?

What’s the secret?

Well, let Bob and Mark answer that question directly in just a few minutes but let me first give you a clue as to what the secret of happiness is not.

I do not think you’re going to find a period in American Life, in which Americans had more access to social technology.



It is easier to talk to friends and families, hundreds of miles away than it’s ever been easier to literally see their faces on a screen.

Easier to find single people to date.

Easier to gossip easier to gossip at work.

Easier to watch other people.


Gossip on social media easier to fill up your life with things worth talking about.

And watch movies, TV shows, read books.

It’s easier to listen to music.

But if you ask Americans today will say they are as lonely or lonelier than any time on record, we do not have evidence of any other period of this country’s history where people said they had fewer friends and family, the share of Americans saying they have close friends has plummeted one in five Millennials that’s my generation.


Say they have no friends teenagers say they spend less time.

I’m with their friends that they do have the amount of time.

All Americans spend alone has increased every year for about a decade and this is an extension of something.


People were pointing out decades ago.

Robert Putnam most famously pointed to it in his famous book, bowling alone.

He said, you know, pick your favorite metric of togetherness marriage, rates Church, attendance membership and chapter based associations.

It doesn’t matter.

It’s all going in the same direction.


It’s all going down.

What is this?

What’s going on?

What is the name?

We ought to give to this phenomenon, this berserk juxtaposition, where you have an abundance of social technology, but a terrible shortage of actual social connection.


It’s the illusion of togetherness.

We have dazzled ourselves into solitude.

Locked ourselves in a virtual cage of solitary confinement to watch media for hours and hours a day.

At the same time that we spend less and less time with actual physical corporeal human beings.


We’ve built a prison for our own dazzling.

And it doesn’t have to be this way.

I’m Derrick Thompson.

This is plain English.


Dr. Robert Walton girl, welcome to the show.

Thank you.

Good to be here.

Mark, Schultz.

Welcome to the show.

Thank you, Darren pleasure to be with you, Bob.

Let’s start with you, and let’s start with his famous Harvard study.

Can you give us the basics?

Well, start it in 1938 to studies that didn’t know about each other’s existence.


And study of Harvard College undergraduates 19 year.

Old young men who were chosen as a study of the best of the brightest as they move from adolescence into young adulthood.

So of course, if you wanted to study normal young adult development, you study all white men from Harvard.


It’s absolutely the most Politically Incorrect sample you could ever have.

But in addition heart at Harvard Law School, they started a study of juvenile delinquency.

Look, Being at children from Boston’s, poorest neighborhoods in 1938 and not just the poorest neighborhoods, but families that were known to social service agencies for family problems for domestic violence, familial mental illness, physical illness, extreme poverty.


And the question in that study was how do some children born with so many strikes against them manage to stay on?


Developmental paths managed to stay out of trouble and so both were studies of thriving of normal adolescent to young adult development at a time when almost all the research that had been done was studying what goes wrong in development so that we could figure out how to help.


And this is now correct me if I’m wrong.

The log, the largest or longest longitudinal study in America History.

What is so special about a study that goes on and on and on like this Mark.

So there are few things that make it special part of it is the closeness with which we’ve followed people across time.


So from the very beginning, both studies are really interested in sort of getting up close and personal and trying to understand the lived experience of participants.

So they started with visits to the homes of the participants interviews with the parents observations of how they interacted with Children and then we followed them very closely across the 85 years now interviews.


Lots and lots of questionnaires, physical exams, lots of poking.

And prodding of kind of physical proportions, early in the study more recently, lots of modern scientific techniques like brain scans and blood draws to learn a little bit about their immunological functioning, and their inflammatory pattern.


So it’s a study that’s follow people really closely.

And the longitudinal part is Important because we often have an idea.

We imagine we can predict how things might unfold in the future, but it turns out our predictions are often wrong.

So, following people across time across their entire adult life is very rare.


We think we’re one of the only studies that I’ve done.

This intensive study of adult life across entire lives.

So really remarkable studies started long before Bob?

And I were involved and we’re just the lucky recipients of some of the hard work that came before us.

Bob the big question people are going to have is what’s the takeaway?


What did we learn?

That is most important to live a happy.

Good long life.

I see.

No reason to bury the lead here, you found that Social Fitness is the key to mental health, physical health longevity.

What is Social Fitness?


And why is it so important?

Well, Social Fitness is just a phrase We coined to to reflect what we think is the truth.

Is that it should be analogous to physical fitness, it’s a lifelong practice.

The idea being that the people in our study, who had the warmest connections with other people stayed the healthiest, and we’re the happiest as they went through their lives.


And the surprise was not so much that they were happier because if you have good relationships, sure.

You’re going to be happier.

The surprise was that they actually stayed healthier and That was what initially we didn’t believe until many other studies began to find the same thing.


And now it’s quite a robust finding well accepted in the scientific literature.

What would be the causal explanation?

Mark for why Social Fitness would redound to physical fitness?

Like having lots of friends is good for your blood pressure, the connect the dots for me like in a sophisticated way.


So it’s such an important question.

It’s really kind of a frontier question on science right now, we’re figuring out all of what we would call those mechanisms that help.

Explain how those social connections get into our bodies and shape our well-being.

There are few ways of thinking about it.


One, is that relationships turn out to be really good stress-busters.

They help us navigate through stressful challenges.

We rely on a friend or a partner to figure out the right path to help us deal with all the emotions that we might have to tell us that we’re not thinking.

About something in the right way or we’ve lost the, you know, a piece of it, that’s really important.


So relationship serve that important function of helping us navigate stress, but they serve so many functions that they’re likely to literally get under our skin.

So we experience a sense of Vitality and human connection.

When were with people, we experience less pain.


If we’re holding the hand of others, there are lots of Behavioral indicators that show us that relationships matter, and that way, and we’re just beginning.

Beginning to understand the mechanism.

So these relationships that we’re talking about close connections can affect your immune functioning they can affect how quickly wounds heal.


So literally if you have a wound, your wound will hear will heal quicker if you’re in a connected and warm relationship with a partner.

It affects our immunological functioning or inflammatory patterns so we’re learning more and more about the why of why those connections exist?


And it’s very exciting time says that unfolds And is there any way?

I’m just thinking through this and I’m not a researcher, but is there any way that we have the causality backward, that is possible that people who are more, physically healthy feel more eager to hang out.


After all, they feel great, they want to get dinner with friends at a restaurant.

They want to have a party with lots of people because they can stay up pain-free until 11 p.m. and they’re not worried about having an attack of chronic pain and 8.

P.m. is it possible that The the causality is going the other way.


Bob, not only possible it’s happening.

So, especially when we think of that something, as complicated as human development, it’s rarely just a one-way.

Causal pathway that.

In fact, it’s bi-directional, it works both ways that the healthier people have more energy to hang out to reach out to make stronger connections with other people.


We know that it goes both ways.

One of the ways that To dental work helps us as we can, we can look at chicken and egg problem.

So which came first?

And when we follow people over time, we do find that people with warmer connections at Time, 1 will have these health benefits at time 2.


And that doesn’t prove causation, but it goes some distance to showing us that the it at least Works in that direction to some extent.

And what did you You find that people could do for their physical health, that might improve their social Fitness, that then might redouble their physical health.


I wonder, for example, you when you’re talking to these people from the 1940s, 1950s, and up through today, you must be asking them.

Something, like, do you exercise like they do you eat?

Well, do you avoid smoking?

What are some of the ways Mark that those physical behaviors?


Effect later life outcomes.

Well there’s no question in our data like all other studies that we look at that.

You know smoking is not a good thing for your health exercising is good going to the doctor’s good.

So those kinds of Health behaviors are associated with physical health outcomes, but I thought I heard you Derek asking a kind of intriguing question and one that I don’t think occurred to researchers back in the 30s and 40s and 50s which is are there certain kinds of exercise doing things for our health that also kind of provide multiple applying benefits that may have a benefit for our happiness as well.


And I think the answer to that.

Yes is absolutely yes, that we know for example, that friendships are made with repeated encounters across time particularly when we’re engaged in activities with other.

So people who are learning a sport playing pickleball for the first time or walking with their neighbors, those are ways that we build relationships and we also take care of our physical health at the same time.


So there are lots of things that we can do that benefit us.

Both tracks, which is a great bonus.

A really great bonus.

And I think, you know, people are figuring that out, right?

People are trying to engage in activities with others.

It doesn’t have to be Sports.

It can also be mental activities or volunteer activities, but things that keep you engaged about your lifespan that also have the benefits of connecting with other people, you get multiple benefits from I know that in an early version of this study it was found that regular exercise and college predicted late-life Mental Health.


Even better than it predicted late life, physical health, which I think is such an interesting observation.

Because, you know, to be honest, I naturally Place physical health, and mental health, and two lanes in my mind.

I think, when I meditating, I am doing that for my mental health, and when I’m, you know, at the gym, I’m doing that for my physical health, but one of my key takeaways from this research, is that those let the cars in those lanes are switching all the time.


They’re not even two lanes.

They’re just like One big open Lane that all the cars are are chaotically driving through.

Bob, well, the research shows that if you want the best antidepressant available on the market, it’s exercise.


It’s free and then that regular exercise has stronger mood, elevating effects than anything that the drug companies manufacture and put out there.

But I also think that the idea Derek which I really love that.


There’s something mentally challenging about engaging in physical activity, or the way in which you engage in physical activity.

Can have a mental boost.



This idea about driving in both lanes, so when I was younger, I used to play soccer, and one of the things that’s great about soccer is that there are 11 people on your team, 11 people on the other team, trying to figure out your position in comparison to all these moving 20 other moving Parts on the field is incredibly, Be kind of challenging to do cognitively.


So we think that similar things happen in relationships with others, we have some evidence that the closeness and the quality of her connection with a loved one.

For example, at age, 80 is connected at least for women with their brain health, three years later.

And again, one of those surprising findings are other people finding this and other kinds of research.


In the answer is yes.

And part of the answer may be that to engage in a close relationship.

With other people requires exercising, your brain and not Well, and complicated ways that keeps our brains and shape if you will over time.

So Sports can do that.


Physical fitness can do that depending on the way that you engage with it and relationships, definitely do as well.

They’re mentally challenging and ways that can keep us literally young across time.

I think it’s really important to put everything that we’ve just said in the last 10-15 minutes about social Fitness in juxtaposition to what’s happening with American Social Fitness right now.


Since 2013 according to the American time.

Use survey time, spent alone has increased by 8 hours a week that’s just in the last nine years in the last 30 years.

The share of Americans reporting five or more close friends has declined from 63% to 38%, almost having one more statistic on an average day, 20 years ago, according to the time, you serve a 38% of Americans socialized or communicated with Friends by 20.


Anyone that number was down to 28 percent.

Now, maybe that figure is particularly influenced by the pandemic but something is happening here.

Americans aren’t hanging out the way they used to.

This is something, you know, Robert Putnam pointed out in Bowling alone and it seems like the aloneness with, which we are bowling is just increasing Bob starting with you.


What do you think is going on here?

Why are all of these Social Fitness numbers going down at the same time that we’re learning?

Earning more and more, how important Social Fitness actually is.

Well, the learning about how important Social Fitness is, is relatively recent, I mean, if you think about the vector Murthy making emotional well-being, a core part of his platform as Surgeon General.


That’s a radical nobody’s ever done that before in the surgeon general’s office.

So, I think that the attention now to the importance of social Fitness is relatively recent unfortunately, and it’s because of all the things you’ve just been describing all of the Increases in Social isolation in disconnection, in the breakdown of traditional social structures of Engagement.


You’re asking why?

And I think there are so many explanations for that.


It’s very difficult, you know, their work workplace phenomena that are changing in terms of work, you know, more remote work and everybody’s worried about what that means for our lack of Engagement.


Went with other people, my son got his first job out of business school with a company that has no physical location.

He’s never met his colleagues in person so and he’s not, he’s not unusual.

So certainly changes in the workplace changes in social media where these wonderful devices, grab and hold our attention.


And many kids spend hours, most of their waking hours online, and it’s seamless.

They do their homework online and therefore chatting online being on social media online as is indistinguishable from the rest of life.


So they were all these Trends seem to be coming together to be pushing us toward disconnection.

And then the question is, how do we be more intentional?

Because the path of least resistance is greater and greater disconnection.

And I think, Derek if I could just add one thing that it’s really interesting, I love the stats that you cited that there’s an interesting phenomena where if we look at the folks that are the most lonely in every port not having anyone in their life that cares about them or kind of knows who they are.


Some of the loneliest folks are people who are college, age are at college, so they’re surrounded in close proximity with many, many people who are doing similar things, may have similar priorities.

So there’s something about these times that an Addition to the structural challenges that we’re facing being further away from families, that we grew up in being in a very mobile Society may be working more, there’s something about the way that we are engaging in connections with others, that is broken in a certain way that people aren’t connecting in the way that they did.


I think Bob was alluding to one of those ideas that we think is an important area to look at.

If we’re spending so much time on screens.

What does that do to the quality of our connections with others?

Even if part of that time is engaging in connections on the screen, I’m somehow there’s a disconnect between the opportunity for connection that technology provides and the increasing amount of loneliness that people are reporting.


It’s quite extraordinary.

Yeah, I have a thought in my head that might be a little bit confusing to get out, but you seem like the the Right audience for it.

There’s an important distinction between loneliness and aloneness.

Someone can be alone watching a movie that they’re entirely absorbed in thrillingly happy.


And feel not a shred of loneliness there.

Like I’m going to see my friend tomorrow, like there’s no concept of loneliness inherent to watching a movie alone necessarily at the same time.

Mark, you pointed out that many of the people who feel the most alone are not.


In fact, existing in solitude they feel alone on a college campus which is maybe the most busy socially busy social experiment.

We conduct in American society today We throw a bunch of people that are the same age on to the same plot of land and we say, go edit its, there’s nothing inherently alone or in solitude about a college campus.


So this seems like an, like an important point.

I wonder the degree to, which it showed up in your surveys because you have such an extraordinary X-ray and a people’s lives.

It seems like many people who were alone, didn’t feel didn’t feel lonely.

And then many people who might have been surrounded by, people felt disconnected from those that were closest to them.


Well, Solitude is different from loneliness.

Solitude is that experience of being by yourself in a contented way, right?

And that’s very different from feeling less connected than you want to be.

And that’s the thumbnail definition of loneliness and so they are completely different.


You can be happily alone on a Mountaintop or watching a movie on Netflix where you can be desperately alone.

The marriage or in a crowd or on a college campus.

So it’s the and loneliness is a subjective experience, as actually, as is solid.


I mean, I, I practice Zen lot of time alone on a meditation cushion, it’s not all comfortable by any means, but it’s Chosen and it’s solid to that’s for a purpose.

And a lot of my most Blissful experiences have been alone on a cushion.


So I think what what your name Whirring Derek is something that we want to point out which is that being alone is not the same as being disconnected from others as feeling disconnected from others.

I’d be interested in your take on the role that work plays in our life.


Especially since your project began with a bunch of elite Harvard guys, who I assume put professional success very much at the center of their life.

I know that In that original cohort, there were people who ran for Senate’s, John F, Kennedy Ben Bradley, who ran the Washington Post for a while?


These are extraordinarily professionally successful people and a few years ago, I wrote an essay in the Atlantic about an idea that I called were Chasm.

That is in an age of declining.

Religiosity, ironically many more educated people.

Precisely the ones you cover.


In this study, have turned to work or career to do the jobs that religion or Organized religion has historically done organized religion ones provided for the majority of people community ritual.

Transcendence, meaning self actualization.

And now for many people it is work that seems to do these jobs for better.


But very often For Worse Mark, is this this concept of work is mm this centrality and sometimes this pernicious centrality of work in people’s lives.

Is this something that you saw in the study or see in the study?


For sure, for sure.

I want to say one thing first and then come back to it which is important to recognize a two-thirds of the original sample where these poor kids growing up in Boston and very challenging circumstances.

Now they work really hard as well and their lifetimes and work was an important part of their experience.


But when we’re talking about the study and the lessons that we’ve learned, it comes from both ends of the social Spectrum.

I think this is an important idea that we spend a lot of our waking time at work.

The things we do at, work are easy.

Her in some ways to quantify than the things that might be more important like relationship.


So we can count the number of hours we work.

And my favorite kind of recent trend is people are talking less about salary and achievements at work.

And they’re talking about how many hours they work at work as a symbol of how important they are.

So I think what you’re describing Derek, really important idea that we all need a sense of meaning and purpose in life.


And when we spend so much time engaged in what activity work, is that activity for many of us, of course, it has to Be or should be a source of meaning and purpose in our lives.

But there are many other places to get meaning and purpose, the communities that were a part of families that we help build the connections that we have more generally to friends.


Those are all places.

Religion is also another important place and I think work has become a kind of secular substitute for a lot of those traditional places where we did derive meaning and a sense of connection.

So I want to talk about my University teacher I’ve been teaching for over 30 years and, you know, students, today, we’ll talk about, I can’t get off the computer because success is important to me.


I need to get the grades.

I need to get that job.

If I go out, I’ll lose that time, right?

So, they’re beginning to make that calculus at a very early age.

These are highly competitive ambitious students, overseeing a prin Mark college, but there’s a kind of cult of achievement that young people have certainly bought into that.


That’s the Source that that’s going to be the source of meaning and purpose in their life, the source of happiness.

And I think there may be missing other important things in their life, that are more critical for that happiness, Derek, one of the things that we did when we when our guys got to be in their 80s, we asked them to look back on their lives and ask them what their biggest regrets were.


And the most common regret was, I wish I hadn’t spent so much time at work and I had, I wish I had spent At more time with the people, I care about.

So that cliche nobody on their deathbed ever wished.

They’d spent more time at the office.


It’s a cliché for a reason.

One thing that makes me think is I’m reflecting on your answers to the workers in question and also your answer is to the question about increased loneliness and increased time alone is that it’s almost as if even in this age that is so much richer than the decade that this project began and has so many more options for activities then the decade in which this project began.


We’re also in an age of inferior Goods.

There’s a way in which people spend more time being social than ever.

I mean, when you’re on your phone in a social media app, there’s a way in which you are being social inherently, you’re seeing the postings of your friends.


But that’s sociality is an inferior good.

Compared to actually hanging out with your friends and you could say, or at least apply the same inferior.

Good label to something like career displacing, the work that religion might have done in religion.


There’s The god of an organized religion is not providing sort of quarterly performance reviews.

You know.

Theoretically, if you’re a, you know, of a faithful person that that that performance review comes at the end of that sits at this one performance review and if there might be ways in which, you know, putting placing your identity, hanging it on your career rather than hang it on something like organized, religion, or hang it on something like family.


Identity is itself, a kind of inferior good.

It’s just a thought bubble.

That popped.

If you want to respond to that we can we can respond directly move on to the next subject.

Well, there’s there’s one connection I can think of that, I think, is a kind of parallel track that, that one of the other things that Modern Life has brought us for folks who are getting married or in a marriage, like, relationship is greater dependence on that person for more things.


So in the 20th century, we grew more and more dependent on our partners for everything advice about careers fun in our life.

A certain kind of economic collaboration that maybe was absent Before.

He’ll I think I’ll talks about this is the all-or-nothing marriage that we put a lot of energy into this one relationship.


So I think work maybe on a similar path.

That’s grown and its importance about how it defines us because there are other influences that have waned.

I think religion is an important one.

Our ties to our community have way and so it’s an interesting idea to think about these parallel tracks about how much more Work has become and how much more dependent we are in our social lives about that one person, our lives that we may be intimately connected to, also, to Circle back to your point about likely so much richer.


Now, I would take issue with that, just what you started to talk about, right?

Which is the idea that well, we’re, you know, we’re on our phones, we’re on social media, but there’s something that feels like saccharin to us.

It’s impoverished.


There’s there’s not Enough content.

There’s not enough that’s a nourishing, right?

And one of the things that research has begun to show, is that how we use social media makes a big difference in our, well, being that if we use social media in this passive way to scroll through other people’s Instagram feeds, our self-esteem lowers levels of depression and anxiety increase, right?


So passive consumption, it lowers our well-being on the other And when we actively connect with other people on social media that can enhance our well-being because it enhances human connection.


So you know, social media isn’t going away.

And if the predictions about the metaverse are true, we’re going to be spending more and more time out of the real world.

And so the question is, how are we going to use?

How are we going to engage with that technology and it seems to make a big difference?


I am very interested in the question.

How do people change over time?

Like, sometimes when me and my high school friends, we’ll get together.

We’ll talk about like has her group of friends changed, more overtime or have people just sort of become more of the person they always were like, sort of filling out, a kind of like a jungian archetype kind of thing.


And, you know, I wonder how, how do you feel about the question?

Do people change from this study?

You have such extraordinary.

God’s eye view on people’s lives.

Bubbles will start with you.

Do people change?


Oh my God.

Yes, I mean the whole point of this study and particularly continuing.

The study was to give the lie to the idea that once we get to be about 20 years old, we’re done.

We’re cooked right there.

You know, most most of the dollars invested in you.


In developmental research goes from 0 to about 18 years old, right, because change is so visible and so dramatic.

But what you watch a lives from 18 to 85 90, you see phenomenal change, right?


And actually, our predecessor George Valiant, who was the third director of the study.

Got very interested in this and he particularly was interested in whether our coping mechanisms changed.

The the way is that That we relied on to relieve stress to meet challenge to deal with anxiety.


And what he found was that, in fact, our coping mechanisms, get more mature, they get more adaptive over time.

And that also used to be thought not to be true.

The thinking was once you got to Young adulthood your coping mechanisms were pretty much what they were going to be and that was it.


So this move toward maturation of our personal styles of meeting.

A challenge.

That’s an interesting and useful empirical findings.

And so, I guess the question is, what do you think about you and your friends are you getting better at coping as you go through life?


That’s a great question.

I didn’t realize that I was going to be on the hot seat and I think some of them might be listening.

Well, I would say this, I think it’s very difficult to evaluate one’s really close friends to this lens because you always want to see the eight-year-old inside of them, even when you’re 36 years old, at 37 years old, like, you can tie my best friend, I met the day before kindergarten.


So my best friends, I met in kindergarten and so when I’m with them, you know, I’m I’m with an almost kind of temporal Russia.

A nesting doll set of them, right?

Like I’m hanging out with them at 37, but I’m also hang out with them at 30 and I’m also hanging out with him at 25, and that’s one of the beautiful things about rich relationships is that you can play that game of echoing Nostalgia, where you can say, remember when that would our roommate, did that crazy thing in 2014.


And oh, remember when our teacher and 1995 said that and eat like, that’s that’s that’s part of part of the richness of it.

So there’s so many ways in which knowing how things have turned out so far Can go back and say I totally could have predicted that when we were you know, zipping zippers and playing blocks and kindergarten.


But I’ve also seen many people change and in extraordinary ways.

So I think I think my answer would be in line with what you said, but Mark what do you say about the question of do people change?

Well, I think there are two kinds of changes and we see both of these in the study.


So there’s a kind of normative change everyone moves in a certain direction.

So like the research about was talking about that we found that people Apple’s coping strategies become more mature.

If you look at from midlife MIT MIT adulthood until late life, people actually grow happier across time, which is a kind of remarkable thing.


If you think about the challenges of Aging, physical decline, may be losing a sense of purpose from losing work.

People dying in your social network old age has challenges that other ages.

Don’t have to cope with and yet people grow happier and part of the reason we think is a kind of emotional wisdom that people acquire as they go.


Life older people have figured out that leaning into connections that give them pleasure and joy as important, and they literally kind of double down on that.

So that’s a kind of normative change and then there’s another kind of change that we see which is people who have led relatively difficult lives.


Maybe been miserable for parts of their adult life who move in a different direction.

Often times.

It’s because of serendipity, sometimes it’s because of intentional change.

But what we find is that people pursue different paths and there Level of Happiness their satisfaction with life changes and important way.


So that’s non-normative change.

And that happens as well.

The people that you went to school with from Nursery School on or from college, they have the capacity to go down a different path, even if we look at them through that lens, that reminds us of what they were.

Like, when they were younger that nesting doll analogy.


People do change and they pursue different path.

So, we talk a lot about in the, in our book about.

It’s never too late.

The idea being that.

If you’ve been in, Position where you feel quite isolated and lonely or you’ve been miserable for good periods of your life.

There are things that you can do right now to change that direction in your life, and we’re going to get to some of those things in a second.


But I want to ask you about this, this lifetime, trajectory that you mentioned, the idea that people tend to have a dip in happiness, in middle age and then it’s sort of an escalator going up into one’s 50s 60s, 70s, 80s 90s, or maybe plateauing at some point.


You know, I don’t have people who are 110 or You know, the happiest people on the planet.

There’s two ways to take this sort of glass half-empty glass.

Half-full glass half-full is the take that you just gave, which is that, as we gain emotional intelligence into our 60s, 70s 80s, we tend to or overall across the population.


There tends to be escalating self-reports of self satisfaction and well-being.

The other end of the question is, why are middle-aged people so miserable Mark, why are middle-aged people so miserable?

So, first of all, it’s a relative like, Important to talk about this research is the relative changes modest that people do grow happier from middle age until late life, but it’s not that middle-aged people report being miserable.


They report being less happy than younger people, and less happy than older people.

And I think the common explanation, which I think is on the right track, is that there are certain challenges that still exists in middle age for folks, namely around career and family.

That is stressful that it adds a burden to life and many people often experience a kind of You know existential crisis about where their life is headed they might feel stuck in a certain way so those kinds of issues come up in midlife these are things that we find often enough.


We think that it’s a developmental pattern but things can shift as culture changes, as people are engaging in Intimate Relationships and families and different ways that pattern isn’t necessarily fixed.

But there is this modest change in happiness that we see across the lifespan and and we saw similar patterns in our own data as well.


Bob, can I ask you about the concept of trauma?

There’s a lot of research now around Aces adverse childhood experiences, a lot of research around post-traumatic stress and also post traumatic growth.


And what kind of people respond to trauma with, you know, stress disorders versus growth.

What kind of light does this study shine on the question of whether trauma?

Echoes or whether positive experiences Echo throughout life.



Well, it’s not either or write that trauma does Echo.

We can see that I would say, we could probably see that in every life and it can echo in some ways that make people take paths toward more dysfunction, it can echo in ways that make people take paths toward correcting, what What happened to them early on having more positive experiences finding better relationships than the traumatizing ones.


So people take Divergent paths.

People also sometimes respond adaptively to trauma in one domain, maybe in their work lives, where they become super competent and efficient and become very dysfunctional in their personal lives.


So, you know, one of the things, you know, when you follow thousands of lives over time, is that one size?

Never fits all that one experience of trauma does not generalize that doesn’t give you much to go on.

I know, Derek because you’re trying to look at, okay, what how do we understand the effects of trauma as people go through life?


What we know is that they are, they are usually quite important and that we know that there are also genetic and temperamental factors that predispose someone Um, people to being more devastated by traumatic events then others get over.


There’s that, there’s a theory that I’m not sure how well substantiated of child development that talks about dandelions and orchids, dandelions being those kids temperamentally who will just grow in any soil, they’ll just grow pretty much whatever happens to them and then they were orchids these delicate flowers who need just the right conditions and they become something.



I don’t think we the aftermath of Life of childhood experience does not reduce to those two prototypes, but there is something to be said for those and the incredible variability that exists in each child’s development.


During and after a traumatic event we’re just going to add one thing which is it’s too that many of the college participants.

So from the original sample, Eighty-one percent of them served in World War Two so they had incredibly challenging experiences.


Many of them are exposed to combat and what they reported as interesting and consistent with this literature on trauma.

Most difficult experience of their lives.

They worried about losing their lives.

They dependent on people to a degree that they never imagined.

They could for literally their bodily bodily Integrity.


They put their hands in other people’s lives.

So the kind of experience that most of us can’t even imagine being in they went through.

They also talked about it as oddly enough.

In many ways.

This is you know 30 40 years later reflecting back on as one of the best experiences of their lives.


And what they talked about was that close connection with others in their units.

So one of the ways that we navigate all challenges including traumatic experiences is leaning into the connections that we have with others and these young men learned at an early age, under very difficult and unfortunate circumstances that depending on others can help them get through.


Through even the most harrowing experiences and we see that in the second generation.

So we’re now studying more than 1,300 of the children of the original participants, we ask them a question.

We asked them to tell us about the most upsetting or difficult event in their life and the narratives that we got were incredible, they were often about loss sometimes about traumatic experiences.


The folks that tended to be able to learn from those experiences, you asked a little bit about post-traumatic growth growth.

So learning from the You’re going to developing new skills.

Often talked about either finding meaning that was important to them a new sense of meaning or about leaning into their connection.


So horrible losses, the loss of a child leaning into their partners for sources of support and understanding, and developing a connection.

That maybe they would never have had if they didn’t have to experience this kind of mutual trauma.

So, we see the role of relationships in particular, and I think that’s what the literature points to and helping us navigate.


Challenges of all kind, including dramatic ones.

Bob, I don’t know if this question takes us a little bit off road, but you mentioned that you’re deep into zen practice and I wonder we’re talking about trauma.

We’re talking about coping mechanisms to what degree does your practice in Zen bear, on these questions of what does successful coping look like in the face of the fact that it’s inevitable that distress is going to happen?


That sadness is going to happen sorrow loss.

These things are We are a part of a long-lived life.

What is some of the wisdom that your Zen practice can give us in the question of how to cope with these more tragic, inevitabilities?

Well, the myth of meditation, practice and Zen and Buddhism is that you can detach from all that you can detach from traumatic history.


You can detach from difficult emotions that come up and then you will achieve some kind of equanimity and you’ll be good for life, right?

That is simply not the truth.

It’s a myth to my understanding, it’s a Miss conception.


Ian of what practice does that what it really does, is offers us a way to be with whatever comes up moment after moment, right?

Including some very intense, negative emotions, as well as very intense positive emotions.


And the idea is to be with, whatever comes up, not to suppress it, not to push it away.

But then not to have to act on it, to be able to sit with absolutely whatever happens.

So, my practice Zen practice actually is to sit, absolutely still for 25 minutes at a time.


And the reason for absolute Stillness is that so is that when your nose begins to Hitch and you think I absolutely have to scratch it?

I absolutely have to and then your experience is, you don’t scratch it and you get to see what happens.

Or you need starts to hurt or right?


And there’s something that sounds ridiculously simple about that, but there’s something absolutely profound and empowering about knowing that you can be with whatever arises and not have to react and act on it until you’ve discerned how you want to react how you want to go forward, right?


So that’s the that’s the shredder short answer to what does Practice actually do for you.

That’s a lovely answer.

We’ve talked a lot about generalities, I’m interested in hearing that individuals.

Maybe each of you have, maybe this is like picking among children, but a favorite individual to cover.


I don’t know if we can when I talk about them from by their, by their first names or from their case numbers.

But are their individual stories, that you find particularly powerful particularly memorable, or even just that hook back to a point that you want to reiterate from this conversation, Marco.


Start with you.

So I think we may have talked a little bit about this person but one of the, the characters in our study that I find just very compelling and inspiring is Andrew during and Andrew during lived.

Very lonely.


Existence through most of his adulthood, he reported no friends.

He was in a marriage that was not fulfilling for him.

The only thing that really gave him satisfaction was his work.

He did some intricate work with his hands that became difficult.

It to do, as he entered into his 60s and had to retire.


He decided to end that less satisfying marriage, and he was on his own and lonely had no friends.

He started to go to a gym, partly to pass the time.

And in that gym, he encountered people on a daily level began to recognize faces figured out that the time he came in the morning.


The same people are there every day and started to have conversations about things that they were mutually interested in.

And over time he realized that some of those people were interested in movies and Old movies in particular and he started to invite people over to his house to watch movies and he shared his expertise with them.


And this was in his late 60s.

Now for a man who for five decades have been quite unhappy in a 70s when the study check back in with him and asked him the same question we ask always, do you have friends?

Do you have people who support and know who you are and have your back?

He said very proudly.


He said yes, several.

And that was quite a contrast from saying zero or he had No friends.

So inspiring story about how all of us can change, it takes some, you know, practice and and opportunity to make that connection.

And this was a man who in his 70s was able to have that turn in his life.


So fear-inspiring that’s a really beautiful story, and it’s now making me question.

My decision to wear noise-cancelling headphones at the gym, relationships them for going potential friends that are being blocked into silence.


Bob, what about you?

I think mine is the man.

We call Leo DeMarco in the, in the book because previous researchers in our study thought he was the most boring man in our study.


And his story is that he served in World War Two.

He was a Harvard undergrad when he came back from World War Two, he wanted to be a writer, but he had to come home and take care of an aging, ailing mother.

So He came home, he needed a job.


He got a job as a teacher, and ended up spending his life as a high school history, teacher, totally undistinguished.

He wasn’t Rich, he wasn’t famous.

He didn’t make any kind of name for himself.


And initially the researchers in our study, thought this guy really doesn’t have much to offer gradually as we watched his life unfold.

We decided Was the best adapted, man, and the happiest man in our study and all of it, centered around his relationships.


He happened to love teaching, kids, teaching teenagers.

He was a history teacher.

He left his colleagues, he really enjoyed mentoring.

He had a good marriage, his wife.

He said, was his closest Confidant and friend?


He had three kids a good relationships with them.

Them loved to teach his grandchildren to sail it sounds idyllic but he was totally unremarkable and I think it’s the unremarkable quality that stands out for us.


As we think about a culture of that valorizes, all of the things we just talked about that.

This man never was.

And so I just want to name that and call that out as something for our listeners, because many of us feel like well if we haven’t done these extraordinary things, we’re not having the good life If the Beauty and the mundane, that’s a really lovely point.


Last question I have for you, it’s a cliche to ask, you know, what is the purpose of life?

I don’t think the question can be answered in any reasonable singular way, but it does have that word in it.

That is it is interesting to think through which is purpose.


And I wonder whether what role you think purpose serves in life, whether the people who are happiest in this longitudinal study, where those who found something that they could tell themselves was a purpose, whether it was their wife or their child, their career, their friend group watching, you know, 1940s film Noir after that.


And on Tuesday nights after going to the gym, Mark.

What role do you think purpose serves in a good life, I think purpose is important for all of us.

Having a sense of purpose gets us up in the morning and, you know, reminds us that we have something important to do and that’s critical for us throughout our lifespan.


And what’s interesting, even the examples, I was listening carefully.

Derek with your examples that, you know, purpose can be described at many different levels.

So, for some people they might talk about their work as being their critical purpose, they want to, you know, find a cure for cancer.

But the reason we want to find a cure for cancer for many people isn’t just because of the fame that may come with it, it’s because we’re going to help people that it’s because of those connections with others, almost all the examples you gave Derek.


And you know, my sense of purpose is around my family.

Only doing well for my family that we find, when we sort of step back and think about it, that achievements themselves have very little meaning to US, unless it’s in a relational context.

So, you know, exciting Bob and I really pleased that our book has gotten some attention.


It feels great, but it feels particularly good when people that we care about say, I really enjoyed reading your book.

It’s so neat that you did this, right?

So it’s that success or sense of meaning that you’ve achieved something important that is important in the context of your Actions with others.


So meaning is important, meaning Beyond connections themselves, but oftentimes our sense of meaning or purpose is derived from the things that it does for other people that are important to us in our surroundings.

Bob does that does that sum it up?

Oh, well, it does sum it up in one of the things that that we find is that everybody asks themselves at some level, the question, do I matter and that usually means do I matter to other people.


And I’ll give you an example.

Well, not in our study.

But in another study the health and retirement survey, they tried all these ways to get older women to exercise because it was becoming a real problem that women were leading more sedentary lives at particularly as they aged.


And they tried all these Scare Tactics tactics, you know, advertisements that said you know, you’ll get sick and it didn’t do a thing.

Well, when they showed an older woman holding a baby, obviously a grandchild.

And said be there for your grandchild.


These women flocked to exercise, right?

And the the issue was whether they matter to somebody in the world.

And so all the things we’re talking about, boil down to the question of do I matter.

And does my being here in the world, make a difference in what happens for other people and in our future.


So I think that’s that’s the question we’re all asking and we all And wonderfully different unique ways to answer.

It’s so interesting to think about the language we use when we talk about touching the lives of others, right?

That’s the metaphor that we use and that’s often that sense of meaning and, and purpose, that we described have, we impacted other’s lives by our touch, our Reach, In some ways.


So interesting.

It’s a beautiful place to end mark Bob.

Thank you so much.

Yeah, thank you ver, pleasure.

Thank you for listening.

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