What Really Makes Us Happy

As a Buddhist teacher, psychiatrist, and leading researcher, Dr. Robert Waldinger studies life from three very different perspectives. But he says they all come to the same basic conclusion about what really makes our lives happy and meaningful, and what doesn’t.

Robert Waldinger
3 April 2024
Illustrations by Libby Burns.

Melvin McLeod: Your newest book is called The Good Life: Lessons from the World’s Longest Scientific Study of Happiness. So before we get to the question we all want the answer to—what actually makes us happy?—tell us about the famed study of human happiness you direct that your conclusions are based on.

Robert Waldinger: What’s unique about the Harvard Study of Adult Development is that we have studied the same people for their entire adult lives. The study began in 1938, so this is its 85th year. We started with a group of teenagers from Harvard College and a group of teenagers from Boston’s poorest neighborhoods. Both groups, a very privileged group and a very disadvantaged group, were followed for their whole lives. We then included spouses, and now we’re studying their children, who are baby boomers, so the study has gender balance.

So watching and talking to people over the course of their whole lives, what did you learn about what makes life happy and meaningful?

Two big findings stand out. One is something our grandparents would have told us, which is that if you take care of your health, you are happier, healthier, and you live longer. That’s not a surprise, but it’s important to know there’s hard science behind this, that taking care of our bodies—not drinking too much, getting exercise, all of those things—really matters to leading a happy life.

When people in our study were committed to things in the world beyond themselves, they were so much happier.

The second finding was more of a surprise to us. We found that the people who were healthiest, happiest, and lived longest were people who had warm, closer connections with other people. So better relationships actually get inside your body and impact your health.

Of course, much of our popular culture—music, movies, television shows—is devoted to that very idea, that good relationships, particularly romantic relationships, are the key to happiness. But your study showed they also lead to better health.

Yes, that’s the surprise. We also find it’s not just romantic partners. In fact, you don’t need to have a romantic partner to get these benefits. Our study showed that it’s really the experience of being connected to somebody, or even just a couple of people, with whom you feel warm, close connections. Many of us don’t have intimate partners, but it turns out that’s not essential to the benefits we’re talking about.

What do these findings tell us about how we should lead our lives or order our priorities?

One of the things I’ve learned from doing this study is that the people who made this work for them were more active in taking care of their relationships. I used to think that my good friends are always going to be my good friends, so there was not much I needed to do to maintain the friendships.

Yet what we know is that even perfectly good relationships can kind of wither away from neglect. So we really want to be active in taking care of our relationships. I’ve been at Harvard my whole adult life, and Harvard is all about achieving things, right? I could work 24/7 and every weekend find myself at my laptop working.

But now, after seeing the results of this study, I really make myself think, Who have I not seen lately? Who do I want to connect with? I make the choice to make sure I’m connected. I will reach out to a friend and say, let’s have a cup of coffee. I didn’t use to do that, so this study has changed the way I lead my life.

There are so many things we’re told will make us happy. Money, status, luxury, security—all the things the system incentivizes us to pursue. But your study shows us that what actually makes life happier and more meaningful, and even healthier, is human connection, not things like career, success, money.

It’s true that accomplishing things we care about does feel good. But what we find is that the awards we go after, the wealth we go after, the fame we seek, don’t make people happier. It doesn’t necessarily make them unhappy either. They’re just not relevant to happiness. What’s really relevant to happiness is whether you feel engaged in activities you care about and spend time with people you care about.

If the purpose of a good society is to help people lead happy lives, if that’s the goal, then how should we change our policies in light of what you’ve found actually makes people happy?

We used to think that as long as GDP was going up, we would all be happier. But we found that’s not true. What we know is that if we invest in human capital—in human development and human connectedness—then the payoffs are big and they’re very long-term.

One of the ways we can do that is through programs of social and emotional learning in schools, which the Dalai Lama has been a big advocate of.

There’s a lot in The Good Life about social and emotional learning because it turns out to be so useful. All over the world, tens of thousands of kids have taken these programs, and they find that they do better in their academic subjects, get into trouble less often, and get into drugs and delinquency less. They are happier, healthier kids.


In this study, how do you, and your subjects, define happiness? Are you measuring happiness in a relative sense, as less suffering, or maybe the kind of ordinary unhappiness that Freud said was the best we could hope for in psychotherapy? Or is there some sort of deeper or less transient happiness that comes from the kind of close human connection you’re talking about?

Well, researchers have studied this too. They found that happiness comes in kind of two big flavors.

One is called hedonic well-being. Am I feeling happy right now? I’m enjoying the conversation I’m having with you right now, and so I can say I’m feeling happy. But an hour from now, something upsetting may happen and that will change. We’re all familiar with this kind of hedonic happiness, which can go up and down from moment to moment.

Then there’s another flavor of happiness, if you will, called eudaimonic well-being. That’s the sense that life is basically meaningful and good. It means that even if I have upsetting things happen to me, there’s a basic sense that I am okay about my life in the world.

Relationships, knowing our own hearts and minds, self-acceptance, gratitude, generosity—we can build all these pillars of eudaimonic happiness so that even when hard times come along we’ve got both inner support and outer support. That’s different from, am I going go to a nice party tonight?

Did the subjects of your study see this the same way you do—that it was their close relationships that made their lives meaningful and happy? Did they feel that way in spite of the inevitable conflicts that happen in relationships?

Exactly, they did see that. One of the clearest ways we saw it was in studying long marriages. What we saw was that the people who were the most content through these long partnerships were the people who came to understand that relationships are going to have their ups and downs, their closer times and more distant times.

Some of our couples were together for sixty, sixty-five years, and when they were in their eighties we did long interviews about their marriages. What was clear was how much they had been through with each other, how well they knew each other. They accepted each other warts and all, and gradually came to love the warts.

We saw that working out differences makes relationships stronger, and that when we can do that, we end up being more connected. We know each other better. For example, one of the things that happens in my psychotherapy practice is that people get mad at me. And sometimes I get mad at the people I work with. But when we can really dig in and work out our differences, it is so healing. It makes the relationship stronger and we trust each other more.


From a Buddhist point of view, we could say there are two different approaches to happiness, the ultimate and the relative. Our true nature, our buddhanature if you will, is a kind of ultimate level of happiness or well-being. We can experience it directly, and it does not depend on anything relative or external, such as relationships. On the other hand, we have the kind of deep meaning and happiness you’ve been describing that comes through our close connection with others. How do these two relate to each other?

Well, in the Buddhist teachings they’re not separate. My connecting with my true self and my connectedness with the world are not separate. As we meditate, as we delve into the Buddhist path, we realize that at the deepest level there is no separation between self and the world, between self and other.

At a practical level, what I find is that as we sit and get to know our own hearts and minds—the messiness and the suffering of our lives—we develop compassion. As I see how messy my mind is, how embarrassing some of my preoccupations are, I begin to say, oh yeah, everybody’s mind is like this. That is quite helpful in making me realize that we are all working with the same human condition. We are working with the same suffering and experiencing many of the same joys.

So yes, we do approach tuning into the self and tuning into the world as separate endeavors, but we get to a place when in moments we realize, oh, actually they’re not different.

You were in your thirties when you began practicing Buddhism, and you were already a psychiatrist. Did your exposure to Zen change your approach to Western psychology, or perhaps shake it up a bit?

Oh boy, did it shake it up. I was talking to Melissa Blacker, who was the teacher who gave me dharma transmission, about working with patients as a psychiatrist. And Melissa said to me, “What if at the deepest level there’s nothing to fix?”

It was like somebody poured cold water on my head or something. It was like, whoa, what is that about? It began to help me look at my work with people from a different perspective.

Yes, of course there is real suffering. Mental illness is very real and we have very good treatments for it. But from a deeper perspective, maybe this is just another expression of life not needing fixing. Relieving suffering is important, but that beyond that, there’s nothing to fix. There’s nobody to fix.

Husband and wife Robert Waldinger and Jennifer Stone. Photo by Rose Lincoln / Harvard University

The view that we fundamentally need to change or fix who we are is not limited to Western psychology. Many religions posit some kind of original or inherent problem in our nature. But Mahayana Buddhism in particular says that our fundamental nature is good, even inherently enlightened. That’s why we talk about our basic buddhanature. So while we may be deluded on the surface, and therefore suffer, Buddhism aims at helping people tap into that more fundamental nature, which is beyond neurosis and ego.

In Zen, we talk about the world of form and the world of emptiness, our relative and ultimate natures, which are not separate. There’s this wonderful quote from Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, who told his disciples, “You’re perfect just as you are. And you could use a little improvement.”

I think that’s the way I approach my clinical work with people. You are perfect just as you are. The expression of you is utterly unique. It will never be replaced and needs to be treasured. But you are suffering and you may be making others suffer because of your suffering. And we do want to work on that.

So it’s both. It’s not simply accepting everything as it is. That leads to a kind of nihilism that would be dangerous. It can allow for acceptance of things that should not be accepted in the world, right? It would leave people with too much suffering. How we really want to try to make things better is through a sense of the fundamental okayness of each expression of life. That is what Zen has given me a sense of. That’s what I hope I convey to the people I work with in my psychotherapy practice, and in my role as a Zen teacher.

Let me turn the question around now. Are there ways in which your work as a psychiatrist has informed how you understand and teach Buddhism?

One of the things I’m clear about in my Zen community is that mental illness is powerful, it’s real. It’s one of the most devastating things we have to deal with in the human condition. It would be possible to say to people, “Oh, just meditate and everything will work out,” but that is not always the case. There are many situations in which suffering is not going be taken care of through meditation, or if you just became enlightened in some mythological way. Not true.

So I am quite deliberate about recommending treatment—psychotherapy, medication, couples’ therapy, family therapy—when I feel that people are stuck and could get real, powerful help from people who are expert in this and know how to do it. I don’t do that treatment myself with my Zen students—that’s crossing a boundary—but I find them people to work with.

You study life through three distinct lenses: as a Buddhist teacher, as a practicing psychiatrist, and as director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development. When you look at what each of these three tells you about people’s experience of life, do you see a common thread about what makes life happy and meaningful and what doesn’t?

The Buddha’s insight was that there is no fixed, independent self. There’s no me, no Bob, who’s completely separate from everything else. And there’s no Bob that doesn’t ever change. The Buddha pointed to that misconception of a fixed, separate self as the cause of so much suffering. And he said that suffering is relieved when we really understand the interconnectedness of self and everything else.

That’s what we found in our study of adult development. When people in our study were committed to things in the world beyond themselves, they were so much happier. They felt that there was so much more meaning in their lives when their concerns went beyond the narrow concerns of the small self.

Similarly, many of the people I work with as a psychotherapist are tormented by disorders of self-preoccupation. So many of our most problematic mental problems have to do with a disorder of self. If you think about it, depression is the most awful form of self-preoccupation. It’s self-loathing; it’s inability to get beyond the self. Narcissism is a complete preoccupation with self, trying to build it up out of a desperate sense of insecurity.

And finally, in my own Buddhist practice, my most powerful moments of well-being on the meditation cushion have been those moments when, as Dogen says, body and mind drop away. It’s no longer Bob sitting on the cushion, but simply breathing, sounds, and the experience of so many things coming and going in my awareness. Those moments are profound experiences of no suffering.

Robert Waldinger

Robert Waldinger

Robert Waldinger is a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who directs the Harvard Study of Adult Development. A sensei in Boundless Way Zen, he leads the Henry David Thoreau Sangha.