A Zen Priest at Harvard Finds the Key to Happiness

Zen priest Robert Waldinger is the leader of the longest-running study of happiness, who’s found that science and Buddhism agree on what makes us happy.

Andrea Miller
28 November 2017
Waldinger’s viral TED talk entitled “The Good Life” sparked widespread interest in the Harvard Study of Adult Development.

What makes life worth living? What really makes us happy? As a Zen priest and leader of the one of the most important studies of human happiness ever undertaken, Robert Waldinger has sought the answers to these questions.

What he’s discovered is that science and Buddhism arrive at the same basic answer. They both conclude, he says, that “moving beyond the small self is a huge source of both meaning and contentment.”

Waldinger is a clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard University and director of the famed Harvard Study of Adult Development. It’s perhaps the longest-running study of adult life ever conducted. For seventy-five continuous years, it has tracked the lives of 724 men in order to understand what makes for a healthy, happy life. Now it’s following the next generation, as it tracks the lives of the original subjects’ children and their families.

The study is one of the most important longitudinal research projects ever undertaken. Over the decades, the scientific community has followed the Study of Adult Development with interest, but the public was largely unaware of it and its findings about what really makes people happy and healthy. Then Robert Waldinger became an internet star.

It started with a TED talk called “The Good Life.” Waldinger expected to get only a few thousand views and was taken aback when the talk went viral.

Coca-Cola was the first company to get in touch: Could Waldinger speak to executives in Romania in February? After that, interview and speaking requests quickly flooded his inbox. Clearly, this was not when most people would power down. But that’s what Waldinger did. With millions of viewers worldwide watching his talk, he took off for a three-week sesshin, a Zen retreat conducted largely in silence.

Between studying Buddhism and the lives of the 724 men, Waldinger has learned a thing or two about what’s important in life—what creates happiness and what doesn’t. And rather than just knowing the secret to the good life, he is trying to take the knowledge to heart and really live it. That’s why Waldinger—at that intense moment in his career—stepped back to see what his intentions were.

“I have as much ego as anybody,” he says. “When people are inviting you to do things and saying, ‘Oh! We really want to hear from you,’ it’s a strange and heady experience. How do you not believe your own press release? How do you do something that has meaning?”

For Robert Waldinger, all the buzz meant one thing: It was time for quiet and reflection. Time for what really makes life worth living.

The Harvard Study of Adult Development began in 1938 as separate studies of very different populations. The first was focused on understanding healthy young adult development, so the researchers selected people they felt were the best and the brightest: a group of 268 sophomores at—surprise—Harvard. This cohort finished their studies during World War II and most went on to serve in the war.

The second study was started at Harvard Law School by a law professor and his wife, who was a social worker. They wanted to understand why some disadvantaged children went on to become delinquents, while others did not. They selected a group of 456 twelve-to-sixteen-year-old boys from Boston’s poorest and most troubled families.

When the studies were combined, all of the subjects were interviewed and given medical exams. The researchers went to the subjects’ homes and interviewed their parents. And then life took its course.

The men went out into the world and became factory workers and lawyers, bricklayers and doctors. “Some developed alcoholism,” Waldinger said in his TED talk, “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.” One of the Harvard cohort, John F. Kennedy, became president of the United States.

Over the years, some of the former tenement boys would ask, “Why do you keep wanting to talk to me? My life just isn’t that interesting.” But, Waldinger likes to quip, none of the Harvard grads ever asked that question.

Photo by Willie Davis.

Today, about sixty of the original 724 men are still alive and participating in the study. Most are in their nineties, and every two years the research staff calls them up and asks if they can send them one more set of questions about their lives.

Undoubtedly, the demographics of the study are problematic, since all of the original subjects were white men. About a decade ago, when the researchers first attempted to address the gender issue by inviting the men’s wives to take part, many of the women chided them. “It’s about time,” they said. Now, in addition to the wives, the researchers are studying the men’s more than two thousand grown children, and half of them are female. “Thank God!” says Waldinger.

Rectifying the lack of racial diversity is more complicated, since the focus of the second generation study is understanding how the quality of a person’s childhood affects his or her emotional and physical wellbeing in midlife.

“What we have that’s so rare is information about the subjects’ childhoods from their parents,” says Waldinger. “I could collect a new, much more diverse sample of baby boomers and ask them what their childhoods were like and then measure their health now. That would be easy to do. But what we know about memory is that it’s totally creative and faulty. When we remember our childhood, we leave out a lot and we make up a lot. Not because we’re trying to, but because that’s the way memory works.”

Waldinger admits the study is imperfect and skewed, and that under other circumstances it would be shut down. But because of its detailed eyewitness reports, it is uniquely valuable.

After seventy-five years of studying people’s lives, the clearest takeaway is this: over the long haul, strong relationships are what keep us healthy and happy.

In the early years of the study, this finding came as a surprise to the researchers. The idea that relationships are good for us is as old as the hills, but there wasn’t proof that relationships are a good predictor for health, such as whether we get diabetes or heart disease in middle age. So at first, the researchers thought they were just seeing some spurious correlation that didn’t mean much. But it kept coming up, and then it started coming up in other peoples’ research, too.

Eventually, the Harvard Study of Adult Development identified three key points about relationships and their benefit.

Photo by Willie Davis.

Loneliness Is Fatal

It’s not just that social connections are good for us. It’s that loneliness is fatal. People who are more socially connected are happier, healthier, and live longer than people who are less well- connected. Lonely people tend to experience a decline in their health earlier in midlife, their brain functioning degenerates sooner, and they live shorter lives.

Today, one in five Americans reports feeling lonely. This is an unprecedented epidemic of social isolation, one that has been decades in the making. When television worked its way into practically every home, social capital began to decline. Fewer people connected to their communities, joined clubs, went to church, or volunteered. “They simply stayed home and had passive experiences,” says Waldinger.

You can have a thousand Facebook friends but still feel like there’s nobody you can call if you are sick in the middle of the night.

Fast-forward to 2017 and our lives are chockablock with screens. This, notes Waldinger, has further decreased social capital. “We don’t talk to each other,” he says, “we don’t go out. So many people are feeling disconnected. Online connections can lead to real world connections, but they can also lead to a lack of real connection. You can have a thousand Facebook friends but still feel like there’s nobody you can call if you are sick in the middle of the night.”

If you’re going through lonely times, Waldinger suggests you go and serve others who are also lonely. “What if you visited nursing homes? What if you made home visits to people who are shut-ins? What if you tutored people who can’t read? There are so many ways that you could start connecting with people who need connection.”

It’s the Quality of Your Relationships that Counts

The second key point the study identified is that the quality of relationships is important.

While warm relationships are protective, high conflict marriages without much affection are toxic for our health, perhaps worse than getting divorced. In fact, how satisfied someone is in their relationships at age fifty is a better predictor of what their health will be at eighty than their cholesterol levels.

As Waldinger explains, “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 eighties, that on the days when they had more physical pain their mood stayed just as happy.” On the other hand, people in unhappy relationships found that their physical pain was magnified by their emotional pain.

Photo by Willie Davis.

Good Relationships Are Good for Your Brain

The third key point is that strong relationships don’t just protect our bodies; they protect our brains. People in their eighties experience earlier memory decline when they do not feel they have someone in their life they can count on in times of need. For octogenarians who do have such a person, their memories stay sharper longer.

In the field of psychology, feeling that you have one or more people you can depend on when the going gets tough is called being “securely attached.” Keep in mind that being securely attached does not mean that your relationship is always smooth sailing. Some of the octogenarian couples Waldinger has studied could bicker with each other endlessly. But that hasn’t taken a toll on their memories, as long as they feel securely attached to each other.

Often we find secure attachment in a spouse or family member, but neither a marriage license nor blood ties is necessary. According to Waldinger, you just need to have the sense that there is at least one person in life you can really depend on to experience the health and well-being benefits of a relationship.

Zen is so much about this being our life — just this, whatever is coming up right now.

Studying people’s whole lives—from childhood to old age—has given Waldinger a sense of how finite life is. He says that when you see the totality of a life from beginning to end, when you see there is nothing more for that person to become, it gives you a different perspective on life.

“What is really important? What do I want to be sure I do with this time, and what don’t I want to do? Of course, we can all ask ourselves that question at any moment, but studying lives in this way makes me ask the question more often.”

At the retreat he attended as his TED talk was going viral, Waldinger received transmission to teach Zen. After the ceremony, Waldinger felt he made a terrible mistake, and that he was the biggest imposter in the world. Yet it was also an absolute thrill. “It’s a role I hope I grow into,” he says.

“Zen is so much about this being our life—just this, whatever is coming up right now,” says Waldinger. “It’s brought more contentment to my life and has allowed me to step back from some of the things I’m so certain of, and then realize they aren’t certain at all.”

“Maybe there are religions that get to total happiness and bliss. But Zen doesn’t work that way, and it certainly hasn’t for me,” he says. Happiness in the real world doesn’t mean every day, every moment is happy.

Through meditation, Waldinger has gotten to know his own mind and body, and this knowing has been a source of frustration because, as he puts it, he watches his mind “do the same ridiculous things it’s always done.” But beyond the frustration, he’s found more self-acceptance.

Waldinger laughs when he tells the story of having tea during that retreat. A little tray of snacks was being passed around and, from the end of the line, Waldinger was eyeing the one remaining brownie. “I found myself really wanting it and thinking, Oh God! Who’s going to take it? Then I stopped and realized, In a few hours, I’m going to receive dharma transmission, and all I can think about is whether I get that brownie! Yep, this is what I do, and this is what I’m always going to do, but there’s much less pain about it, much less agitation.”

Being able to live a fortunate life depends a lot on luck—on having good health and having your loved ones with you. Circumstances can always change in a heartbeat. But right now, says Robert Waldinger, “I’m living a very fortunate life.”

“One of the things that our participants talk about is the satisfaction from being involved in endeavors beyond the self,” says Waldinger. “It might be nurturing their grandchildren. It might be making a beautiful garden. It might be volunteering in Africa.”

Like the study, says Waldinger, Buddhist teachings also place a high value on relationships. In fact, sangha, community, is one of the “three jewels” of Buddhism, on par with the Buddha and the teachings.

Members of a spiritual community can support each other in practical ways, driving people to doctor’s appointments or cooking them meals. And the relationship in community provides spiritual nourishment as well.

“Individually, we can get lost,” Waldinger says. “We get caught up in worries and in being so sure that something needs to be different than it is. In community, we remind each other of truths that are easy to lose sight of—the truth of impermanence, the truth of no fixed self, the truth of everything being okay at a certain level just as it is.”

Whether it’s with our spiritual community, family, coworkers, or friends, there are ways we can improve our relationships. Maybe we can let go of our grudges and reach out to the family member we haven’t spoken to in years. Maybe we can replace a little screen time with “people time,” or liven up a stale relationship by doing something new together.

In Zen, it’s said that in the expert’s mind there are few possibilities, but in the beginner’s mind there are many. What would happen if we were to bring fresh eyes to old relationships? What if we looked at our family members as if for the first time? “What if we brought beginner’s mind to the family dinner?” asks Waldinger. “Often what happens is that relationships become ossified. We settle into roles and fixed images of the other, but of course those images are distortions.”

According to Waldinger, one of the most powerful tools for improving our relationships is meditating. Through meditation, we get to know ourselves, and when we truly understand our own minds and bodies, we understand a lot about other people’s minds and bodies too. That makes us more compassionate with ourselves and everyone around us.

Andrea Miller

Andrea Miller

Andrea Miller is the editor of Lion’s Roar magazine. She’s the author of Awakening My Heart: Essays, Articles, and Interviews on the Buddhist Life, as well as the picture book The Day the Buddha Woke Up.