Here is the full transcript of Diary of a CEO Podcast titled “10 Life-Changing Lessons From The Longest Ever Study On Human Happiness” with Dr. Robert Waldinger. In this conversation with host Steven Bartlett, Dr. Waldinger discusses the longest ever study on human happiness, which tracked 724 families for 85 years to determine what leads to happy and healthy lives. The study found that relationships are the key to happiness and good health, and isolation can be as dangerous to health as smoking half a pack of cigarettes per day.
Listen to the audio version here:
Steven Bartlett: Robert, who are you and what is the mission that you’re on?
Robert Waldinger: I am a psychiatrist, I’m a married father of two grown sons, I’m a Zen priest and I’m a researcher. And the mission that I’m on is to relieve the suffering that’s optional in the world. That’s the vow I took as a Zen priest.
Steven Bartlett: What is the optional suffering you’re referring to?
Robert Waldinger: Well, there’s some suffering that’s not optional, right? There’s pain, there’s so many things that we can’t control that hurt, that we suffer from. But then there’s optional suffering, there are all the stories we tell ourselves about things that turn out not to be true, things that I worry about that turn out to amount to nothing. Mark Twain had a wonderful quote that I love, he said, ‘Some of the worst things in my life never happened.’
And that’s the optional suffering that we’re talking about, all the ways that we imagine things that make us suffer a great deal.
Steven Bartlett: So let’s go down those two paths, psychiatrist and Zen priest. What does it mean to be a psychiatrist? What does that mean practically in terms of your work?
Robert Waldinger: It means working with people who are struggling with mental illnesses, with conditions for which we have help. And some of the help is medication, some of the help is talk therapy. I became fascinated by how the mind works, that was what was most exciting for me when I was a medical student. And I realized that it was going to keep me interested most of my career, and it has, because everybody’s so different.
I mean, I realized if you treat one case of high blood pressure, you sort of know what the next one’s going to look like. But when you talk to a new person, it’s never the same as the person you talked to last week. So being a psychiatrist for me is getting to take deep dives into people’s life experience.
Steven Bartlett: There’s a true line here to the third pillar of what I find so absolutely fascinating about you. And it’s also the thing that introduced me to you. Many years ago, I was a young man who was incredibly, I would say, I would say addicted to some degree to work, I was pursuing money at all costs. I was that sort of typical millennial, I think you’ve referenced in the book that had his priorities in all the wrong orders. Particularly at that point, I’d sacrifice so many things, the stuff that you write about that makes life so meaningful presence, my happiness was off somewhere in the future behind some future imaginary goal. And I was sat in a room in Manchester.
The Longest Ever Human Study
I think I was in the region of, I’m going to say somewhere between 18 and 20 years old. And then I saw a video that you had made a TED talk, you had done, it’s one of the most watched TED talks of all time. And it was about, it was the longest study on happiness ever done. It was the Harvard study of adult development, I think it’s called.
And it punched me in the face. And it punched me in the face, because I’ve never forgotten it. And I’ve talked about it frequently, you know, every course or every couple of months since then. But it punched me in the face, because it made me confront something that I think I knew at some deeper level, I was maybe getting wrong. And that was the nature of what really makes us happy as humans.
Can you tell me about the Harvard study of adult development? What the aim of it was, and how you in particular got involved with it?
Robert Waldinger: Sure. The study is the longest study of human life that’s ever been done, as far as we know, of the same people going through their entire adult lives. That’s what’s so rare about it. Most research is snapshots in the moment, or over two weeks or a month. So this is over 85 years, 724 families. It was started in 1938.
It was started as two studies that actually didn’t know about each other. One was a study of Harvard College students, 19 year olds, young men who were thought by the deans to be fine, upstanding specimens. And this was going to be a study of normal development from adolescence into young adulthood. I mean, now we smile because, you know, if you want to study normal development, you study all white males from Harvard, you don’t do that. It’s so politically incorrect. But at that time, that’s what they were doing.
And the other study was started at Harvard Law School by a law professor and his wife, a social worker, who were interested in juvenile delinquency. And they were particularly interested in how some children from really troubled backgrounds managed to stay out of trouble and stay on good developmental paths. Like how could that be? What were the conditions that allowed these young people to thrive? So they chose boys from the city of Boston in 1938, whose families were known to, on average, five social service agencies for domestic violence, parental mental illness, physical illness. And they studied all those boys, again, looking at what makes people thrive.
And so both of these studies were studies of good, normal development instead of studies of what goes wrong. Most of what we study is what goes wrong so that we can help people. So these were radical in that sense. And then nobody expected the studies to last more than five or the most 10 years.
And the founders of the study would never have dreamed that you and I would be talking about this study today. And the fact that we’re still collecting data, even as we speak, from the children of all of these original 724 families.
Steven Bartlett: Wow. You’re still collecting data from the children of the participants?
Robert Waldinger: Yes.
Steven Bartlett: And the founders of the studies are still alive?
Robert Waldinger: Oh, no, they’re long gone. I’m the fourth director. And the third director was my teacher. When I was a medical student, he lectured to my class about this study of men who were then in their 50s. And I thought, this is amazing.
And then about 15 years later, he took me out to lunch one day and said, ‘How would you like to inherit this study?’ And I was flabbergasted, but very excited to be able to do it.
Steven Bartlett: What was the study aiming to answer?
Robert Waldinger: It was looking at the big domains of life. It was looking at mental health, physical health, work life, and relationships. And what the study has done is looked at all of those same domains over and over again, year after year for 85 years. What’s exciting for me about it is that we’ve changed our methods. So initially, there were interviews and medical exams, and people went to their homes and talked to their parents.
Well, now we draw blood for DNA. I mean, DNA wasn’t even imagined in 1938. We put people into MRI scanners and watch their brains light up when we show them different kinds of images. And, you know, that would have been science fiction to scientists in 1938.
So what I love is, we’re studying the same subjects, but we’re studying them using very different methods over time.
Steven Bartlett: I read that some of the participants of the study that have passed away, have donated their brains.
Robert Waldinger: They have. We have about 30 brains sitting on shelves in a laboratory at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. And what’s rare about them, most brains are collected because there was a big problem in life, for example, dementia, or a brain tumor or something. These are normal brains. And so what’s rare is that these are brains about which we know what their life was like when they were 20 years old, when they were 30 years old. We know so much about them in life. And now we get to examine their brains.
How Has This Study Changed You?
Steven Bartlett: So this study, you became the director of it. Let’s start top level, then how did — this study sets out to answer some of the big questions in life, the most important things about what makes us happy, what keeps us healthy, socially healthy, physically healthy. You’ve got the longest study of humans that anyone thinks has ever been done.
You’ve been studying them for decades upon decades. Looking at that research and being a first party to all of that, that information, how has it changed you?
Robert Waldinger: It’s very much made me take care of my own relationships. So because the biggest, most surprising finding in the study was that it’s our relationships that keep us healthier and happier.
You know, I’m a Harvard professor, I could work nonstop until I dropped dead. I mean, that’s just the way academia works. And what I realized was particularly once my kids weren’t there pulling me away to go take them somewhere or do something with them, that I could just work all the time. And so what I’ve started doing is to be much more intentional about calling my friends about saying, let’s go for a walk, let’s go out to dinner, let’s make sure we get together.
I never would have done that before, particularly as a man, I think women are much better. My wife is much better at calling friends on the phone at making sure they get together. I had to teach myself to do that; I had to make myself do it. I had to take my own medicine, if you will, based on what I was studying in my work life.
Steven Bartlett: What do we what do we get wrong about the subject matter of happiness? Like if you were to ask those participants, what they thought would cause happiness in their lives, or you would ask, I don’t know, a millennial, what are the answers that we say? And how wrong are we? And are we good at knowing?
Someone asked me this yesterday at an event, they put their hand up, and they said, we’re talking about remote working, and this whole change disruption that’s happened in the workplace. And they put their hand up, I think they’re a CEO. And they said, do my employees actually know what they want? And it was a really curious question, I ended up answering and this is maybe a little bit controversial. But I ended up answering that most of us don’t know what we want in most facets of our life.
Robert Waldinger: Yes, and we’re bad at knowing what’s going to make us happy. I’ll give you an example. And it’s in the book. There was a study in the city of Chicago, where they were studying commuters, people who were about to get on the train, and take the train to work like they did every day. And so they took a random sample of people in one group, and they were assigned to do what they always do on the train, it could have been listening to music, or reading the news on their phone, whatever they did.
The other group randomly was assigned to talk to a stranger on the train, which none of them had ever done. And they asked them beforehand, how much do you think you’re going to like this assignment we’ve just given you? And the people who were assigned to talk to strangers said, I’m not going to enjoy this.
Afterwards, after they completed their assignments, the people who had talked to strangers were much happier than the people who had done their usual staying on their phones or reading the newspaper. So it’s an example of how we’re not so good at knowing what’s going to make us happy. And particularly when it comes to connecting with each other, that there’s something about these kind of small conversations that we can have with strangers, or even with someone we barely know, that turn out to be very energizing more of the time than not.
But we’re always afraid, we’re afraid someone’s going to think we’re strange if we strike up a conversation, or we’re going to get stuck talking to someone who we don’t like. But what we find is that the culture gives us these messages about what will make us happy that turn out not to be the truth. A lot of the messages are about consumerism. We’re told if you buy this car, you’re going to be happy.
If you serve this brand of pasta, you’re going to have blissful family dinners. And even though we sort of know that this isn’t the truth, the advertisements really do inculcate this sense that if we consume the right things, that we’ll be happy. And what we know from our research and many other studies is that’s just not so. And that these connections with each other actually do make us happy.
I mean, for example, you and I are talking now and your questions and your interest in my work is actually energizing for me. It’s actually making me happier than when I walked in the door today.
Steven Bartlett: Why?
Robert Waldinger: I think there’s something about wanting to be seen, like you’re actually saying, I want to know you, I want to know what’s going on with you. And that there’s something about that, that that makes us feel like we belong that makes us feel like we’re connected. And so what we notice and what we talk about in the book is this idea that, that when we actually are curious about another person, it’s giving them a gift, it’s giving them a way to be seen, a way to tell about themselves, that we all really yearn for at some level, or almost all of us do. And so it’s something we can give to each other every day.
What Have Humans Got Wrong About Happiness?
Steven Bartlett: When you compare and contrast the two lists, list A, which says what we think we want, and B, what your study on happiness has shown, that actually leads to happiness, however we define it. What are the things just in order that we’re most wrong about?
Robert Waldinger: Probably the three big ones were most wrong about fame, and wealth, and badges of achievement. If I win this prize, right? If I get to be CEO, that kind of thing. And because the culture tells us all day long that these will make us happy. And because they’re measurable.
I think one of the things you know — if you think about fame, I mean, it’s likes, it’s how many downloads of a podcast, it’s how many people read a book, right? And it’s measurable, it’s quantifiable. Wealth, of course, is quantifiable, and achievement. But what we know is that those things don’t do it.
Now, meaningful work can make us happy, can be fulfilling, that’s different from getting the prize, getting the badge. By contrast, you can’t measure relationships, they’re kind of messy, and, you know, complicated, and they’re often full of ups and downs, and conflicts. And so, you can’t quantify it, you can’t hold on to it, it’s always changing. And so by contrast, these relationships that actually turn out to make us happy, are not; you can’t get your hands around them as easily as you can, you can get your hands around these — these things you can kind of grab for these shiny brass objects you can go for.
Steven Bartlett: So why do we — outside of the media influence, why do we have a sort of proclivity to strive for things like fame? Is there like an evolutionary basis for wanting to be famous or rich or high status, I guess?
Robert Waldinger: Can I get into Zen a little bit?
Steven Bartlett: Of course you can, please.
Robert Waldinger: Okay, there’s a writer named David Loy, L-O-Y, who writes about this, and I think he’s really onto something that in Zen philosophy, that if you really look for the self, if you sit down on a meditation cushion, and you look, and I look for Bob, like who’s Bob, I can’t find him, I can’t find a me anywhere, I can find a swirl of thoughts and ever changing sensations coming from my body. But I can’t really find a fixed thing that I call Bob. And that what David Loy argues, is that all of us at some level know this, that there isn’t really a fixed self, that’s going to go on through time, and it’s going to last after I die.
And that it’s, at some level, scary to know that, right? And what David Loy argues, is that many of us are grabbing for things like wealth and fame, and dominating the earth and dominating each other in this kind of wish to make ourselves feel more real, more permanent, more fixed, like we really exist.
And I think he’s right. I think that — think about all the ways, you know, I think about all the ways I’ve been preoccupied with, you know, am I going to be remembered when I’m gone? Well, I’m probably not, you know, 50 years from now, nobody’s going to really remember who I was. And if I really let that sink into my bones, that’s scary. And so I’d rather write a book with my name on it. I’d rather, you know, endow a building that’ll keep my name on it for a while until the building falls down, do something that makes me last longer, that makes the Bob self feel more real.
So that’s the deep Zen dive that I didn’t mean to take you on. But that’s, I think, for me, the most helpful explanation that why we all, myself included, get preoccupied, why these, buy these badges of achievement, if you will.
Steven Bartlett: With that comes a ton of suffering, right? The desire to be permanent.
Robert Waldinger: Yeah.
Steven Bartlett: And significant.
Robert Waldinger: And to compare ourselves — because with that comes comparison. And we know that when we compare ourselves to others, more frequently during the day, we are less happy.
Steven Bartlett: Even if it’s a positive comparison, i.e. we’re doing a downward comparison.
Robert Waldinger: Even if it’s a positive comparison. Because there’s always the threat of falling short.
Steven Bartlett: You’re deciding to play a game, which is, yeah, it’s like a psychological decision to play a game which sometimes you’ll win, but sometimes you’ll lose.
Robert Waldinger: Exactly.
Steven Bartlett: It’s better not to play the game of comparison altogether.
Robert Waldinger: Well, what I find is when I put the comparisons aside, which I can sometimes, I’m so much more at peace. You know, when someone says to me, do you know that so and so got this many views or so and so, you know, had this many likes on social media, I can feel a little part of myself get anxious or close off or, or start making that, that comparison that, that almost physically hurts a little bit.
And when I let that go, if I can just sit and, and look at a tree for five minutes, I get a sense of equanimity that I can’t get when I’m doing these small comparisons.
Steven Bartlett: The brain engages in these comparisons, quite naturally, you know, it’s trying to make snap decisions. So it doesn’t have to expend too much energy about the value of things and what things mean. So it kind of compares one thing to another.
I’ve read about the studies in restaurants where they add an expensive steak to the menu. And now, because there’s a really expensive one, people will assume that the low price steak is not good. And they’ll avoid that one. They’ll go for the middle one. Their decision changes based on the frame in which they see the options or the choice. And it’s the same with humans. We’re trying to figure out the value of ourselves by snap comparisons.
When you hear about these things that the brain is doing, these like comparisons, you go, why does the brain hate me?
Robert Waldinger: You know, exactly, exactly. The other thing is, when I look at the animal world, I think — you know, think about all the ways that we get preoccupied with, do I look right? Or, you know, am I dressed right? Or have I achieved enough, right?
And then I look at birds, and I think, I bet they’re not showing up worrying about those things. And what a relief, what a wonderful thing not to be worried about those things. And I do find that this practice of mine can get me there some of the time, not all the time, but some of the time.
Steven Bartlett: I used to — I used to wonder on that point of like, why does the brain hate me? I know the brain doesn’t hate you. Like, I used to wonder with weight loss, for example, until I sat here with dietary experts, why, when I have some sugar, I then get sugar cravings. And they explained to me that your brain is actually on your side, it’s trying to help you to survive. Once upon a time when we didn’t have fridges and supermarkets and Uber Eats and whatever else, coming across some sugar would advance your chances of survival, it would give you energy, etc.
And even with the comparison, it’s a tool that helps me make quick decisions. It’s my brain doesn’t hate me. But the world we live in was not designed for my brain. I wasn’t supposed to be able to look at a billion people on a glass screen. And so the suffering is really a byproduct of a changing world, not a brain that hates you. And I see that throughout your work is the world has changed to make us unhappy in several ways. What do we do about that? We can’t leave the world.
Robert Waldinger: No, we can’t leave the world and the world is always going to keep changing. And so for example, if we — sometimes we can demonize screens, and we can demonize the digital revolution, that’s not going away. You know, and so really, it’s about being as adaptable as we can.
But I think for me, the question is, how can we be as intentional as possible, that, our brains evolved, as you’re saying, they don’t hate us, but they evolved in certain ways. And so they need correctives. Similarly, the digital world has evolved in certain ways. And so digital software is designed — digital media is designed to grab our attention and hold it to exploit that brain.
So then how can we be intentional enough to turn away from that software when we need to, right? When we need to turn toward each other, when we need to have real time contact with each other, that’s so nourishing emotionally and psychologically, how can we keep from going down the rabbit hole, that social media has evolved to keep us hooked on, not because social media is evil, just because that’s how they’ve developed in order for people to make a living.
Steven Bartlett: It is quite exhausting. I think sometimes I think, because you’re right, industry and business, and even the high street, if you walk down the high street, you know, outside, everything is designed to exploit the brain, you like the shops are selling sugar and carbs. And all you can go to the gambling shop, and that will exploit your brain. And, you know, dopamine response to flashing lights and pulling that lever on. It’s difficult.
Robert Waldinger: It is difficult. And that’s where suffering comes in. You know, one of the things I see as a psychiatrist, but we all see this is that people often want to change their state, they just want to change how they feel. There’s this great cartoon, I like this, there’s this meditator sitting on a cushion, and there’s a thought bubble over his head. And what he’s thinking is, I really do want to be in the moment, just not this moment.
And if you think about all the ways in which we want to change our state by gambling, the excitement of gambling, or the sugar high we get when I get some delicious ice cream, or you know, that it’s a way of changing that kind of sense of malaise that comes over us moment to moment.
And I think one of the things we can do instead is simply be present for that malaise and then watch it pass, which it does eventually, right? So basically, by and large, we’re trying to get rid of some of the less pleasant experiences of our momentary life, but they’ll pass all by themselves if you just pay attention.
How Do We Gain Discipline?
Steven Bartlett: Does that require this thing called discipline?
Robert Waldinger: Yeah, it does. It becomes watching and not grabbing on for the next thing to make my feeling go away.
Steven Bartlett: I was reading through a chapter in your book about time and attention and death.
Robert Waldinger: Cheery, right?
Steven Bartlett: Yeah, but it’s one of the subject matters that I’m really compelled by. And I’ve actually been writing a lot in my upcoming book about the topic of death. And the order in which I wrote was, I started by talking about time and death, because I think that’s sort of intrinsically linked to understand the importance of time, you need to understand that you are going to die, which I don’t think many humans really understand.
And then I was going to deliver some time management techniques in my book, because I thought, right, I’ve set up the conversation that time is important. So now give the reader some time management techniques. I researched all the time management techniques, I looked at the ones that I use, and I realized there were 1000s of them. Now there’s 1000s of them for the same reasons that there are 1000s of fad diets. Because none of them work. Unless you have this thing called discipline.
And this is what you know, as a Zen priest, you know, it’s all well and good knowing the techniques about meditation. But if you can’t have the restraint to not get on Uber Eats at 1am in the morning and order that KitKat, because you don’t have the discipline, it doesn’t matter, I can know it, but doing it is another thing.
My question is about discipline. How does one — even if you’re looking at your own life, where does one find that discipline?
Robert Waldinger: You know, often it’s, it’s not the Nancy Reagan strategy of just say no, right? You know, if you think about that, that discipline can’t just involve saying no, it has to involve having something to turn toward. And I think that’s where we may be able to help each other find things.
So, you know, if you don’t want to order the KitKat on Uber Eats, right? What could you do instead, that that might help that might feel okay. And I think it’s that — you know, if we think about Alcoholics Anonymous, one of the reasons why it works is it doesn’t just say don’t drink, it gives you a whole social network of people to support you. And it gives you activities to do and people to be with every hour of the day, right?
And so what it does is it gives you something to put in place of that drink that you want to reach for. And even so, it’s really hard. And so I think what we need to say is let’s put in place some things to help us manage so we don’t reach for the candy when we’re trying to lose weight, right? But when our body is just saying, I gotta have it.
The Importance of Romantic Relationships
Steven Bartlett: And one of those things which you read about, and you’ve seen in the study is, as you said earlier, is connections and relationships. How important — can you quantify to me the importance of having a romantic partner in your life? As it relates to health outcomes?
Robert Waldinger: Well, unfortunately, I can. And because I just want to say that you do not need a romantic partner to get these benefits. Because some people have said to me, well, if I don’t have a romantic partner, should I just walk in front of the bus now and end it all, right? No, no, it’s fine not to have a romantic partner.
But there is research that shows that actually people who are married, men live 12 years longer on average, if they’re married, and women live seven years longer on average, if they’re married. This is some studies in the United States. That said, it’s not the marriage license. It’s about an intimate connection. And you can have an intimate connection with somebody who’s not a romantic partner, could be a good friend, could be a sibling, could be an adult child, so many things — you know, so many ways to have this.
What we think is that everybody needs at least one person to whom they feel securely attached. Our original participants in our research, at one point we asked them, who could you call in the middle of the night if you were sick or scared? List everybody. And most people could list several people that they could call. But some people couldn’t list anyone. And some of those people who couldn’t list anyone had romantic partners. Yeah.
So, you can be lonely in a romantic partnership, right? You can be isolated in an intimate relationship. So, all that is to say that it is really the quality of a secure connection that we’re talking about that we think everybody needs at least one of in the world to get these kinds of benefits.
Steven Bartlett: What is the physiological or spiritual or Zen reason why having an intimate relationship with at least one individual is causing us to live longer?
Robert Waldinger: Yeah. So, there are a lot of theories about this, but the best theory for which there’s some good data has to do with stress. The idea that good relationships actually help us manage stress and help us manage negative emotion. So, stress happens all day long, right?
And if I leave here and something upsetting happens, my body will literally change. My blood pressure will go up. My heart rate will increase. I might start to sweat, right? That’s normal. The body goes into something called fight or flight mode. We’re supposed to be able to do that because we want to prepare to meet a challenge. Evolutionarily, it’s a good thing.
But then when the stressor is removed, the body’s meant to return to equilibrium. So, if I have something upsetting happen and I go home and complain to my wife, I can literally feel my body calm down. If you have a friend you can call and you can talk about what was upsetting, you can literally feel that return to equilibrium. What we know happens is that people who are lonely, people who are socially isolated don’t have that.
And what we have been able to demonstrate is that they stay in a kind of fight or flight mode. So, higher levels of stress hormones circulating like cortisol, higher levels of inflammation. And that’s how we think we’re pretty sure that isolation, loneliness or toxic relationships through stress can break down your coronary arteries, can break down your joints, can make it more likely that you’ll get type 2 diabetes. So, that’s how the same mechanism can affect lots of different body systems.
Steven Bartlett: And stress is really intrinsically linked to poor nutrition, right? So, if I’m stressed, I’m more likely to reach for the Kit Kat.
Robert Waldinger: Exactly, exactly. You’re more likely to go to the casino or to place that bet or buy that.
Steven Bartlett: Make short-term decisions and not delay gratification.
Robert Waldinger: Exactly.
Steven Bartlett: Maybe explains why men live less long as well because they are less likely to open up according to the data and be vulnerable and therefore their stress is not reduced by the insulating effect of having supportive relationships.
Robert Waldinger: That’s right. They are less likely to open up. In fact, when they’ve done studies of how couples argue with each other, they videotape them. What they see is that men are more likely to withdraw during an argument and women are more likely to pursue to say, look, I want to talk about this. And the man is likely to kind of clam up and literally sink back in his chair.
Steven Bartlett: That’s in fact.
Robert Waldinger: Exactly, exactly, exactly.
Steven Bartlett: I’m enduring. Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Robert Waldinger: And so, it literally involves a process of learning sometimes for many men to learn to say it’s okay. And one of the things we know is that men often have an aversive physiologic reaction during arguments that make them want to withdraw. So that the same kind of fight or flight mode for men may make them want to hang back. And for women may make them want to engage. And that’s a little bit trickier. The science is a little trickier in that regard. But there’s some idea that that’s part of what goes on for us gender wise.
Steven Bartlett: I understand how men might end up in that situation from maybe watching movies, or I don’t know, stereotypes that are portrayed in media of what a man is, right? But are we also inheriting that from our parents?
Robert Waldinger: Oh, yes, absolutely. We get socialized all the time. In fact, there’s some research on adolescent boys. And the research suggests that younger boys have close friends and they emotionally confide in each other. And then as those teenage boys get older, they stop doing that. And there’s some idea that it’s not considered manly to do that. So the boys stop doing it.
The girls continue to do it because they’ve been socialized that it’s okay, that it’s feminine. It’s perfectly reasonable for a girl and a woman to confide in other people, whereas manly men don’t do that. And that’s one of the stereotypes in the ways that we’re raised that hopefully is subsiding. That there are more ways to feel like a real boy, a real man that include emotional engagement with other people.
What Are The Negative Aspects of Being Lonely?
Steven Bartlett: What is the cost then on the other side of the coin? What is the cost of, of being lonely? I was reading some studies, I think, maybe similar to the ones you described about the gradual decay of connection that’s going on in the world. So we’re getting lonelier and lonelier as a species. Have you seen that in your studies over the years? You’ve seen, as you ask these participants, how many people they’ve got to turn to in that moment of crisis? Are you seeing a decay in the amount of people they think they can call it to him in the morning?
Robert Waldinger: We haven’t seen that decay, but there are many other studies that have. And in fact, there’s a sociologist named Robert Putnam at Harvard, actually, who wrote a book in the eighties called Bowling Alone, in which he studied what he called our investment in social capital. Like how much do we join clubs, go to churches and mosques and synagogues? How much do we invite people over to our homes?
And what he found was that starting in the 1950s, all of those indices dropped off. We stopped investing in other people. And it seemed to coincide in the US with the introduction of television into the American home. And then he went back in the early 2000s and did the same survey again. All of those parameters had dropped off further.
So what he’s shown is that we’re becoming much more isolated, certainly in the United States, but also in the UK and in the developed world, particularly. And it seems to have a lot to do with social mobility. It seems to have a lot to do with digital media and forms of entertainment, many different causes. But the net effect is that we are becoming more isolated.
And to your question, there’s an investigator, Julianne Holt-Lunstad, who studies loneliness. And what she has estimated is that being lonely is as dangerous to your health as smoking half a pack of cigarettes a day or being obese. And so what we know is that there are these very real concrete effects of social isolation and loneliness that damage us as we go through adult life.
Steven Bartlett: I read in your book that there was a link with Alzheimer’s as well.
Robert Waldinger: Yes, there is. That the brain declines sooner, and the onset of Alzheimer’s is earlier in people who are lonely.
Steven Bartlett: You’re twice as more likely to develop. I believe that that was in the Marmalade Trust study. You’re twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s if you’re lonely.
Robert Waldinger: It could be. And we think that has to do with stimulation of brain pathways. So the thing that makes relationships a little scary and risky because people are unpredictable is also the thing that simulates our brains. So when I came in here, you and I had never met, so I was going to talk to you. I didn’t know what you’d be like, right? I didn’t know what the questions would be like, but that’s good for my brain because you’ve got my brain running on a lot of different circuits, and that’s simulating my brain circuits. That’s a good thing.
You, I think, are preventing me from becoming demented earlier. So thank you very much.
Steven Bartlett: You’re welcome. Are we good at understanding? I think back to that kid, me, sat in that room in Manchester, just absolutely focused on building a business and becoming a CEO and all of those things, the monetary upside. I was particularly bad at, if you’d asked me what the value of a relationship was, I would have said, I probably would have just pointed to the costs. I would have said, it’s going to have time and arguments.
And in the research that you’ve done, are people good at understanding the value of a relationship?
Robert Waldinger: No, they’re not. They’re not. Partly because relationships are the background. I mean, if you think about it, we’ve never known the world without relationships. Most of us — most of us do not live in solitude. And so there’ve always been people around, which means we tend to take relationships for granted. And it’s only when you pull back and you look at, you know, thousands of lives that we saw these powerful effects, the differences between people who had good relationships and people who didn’t.
Most of us are, you know, it’s like that old joke about the two fish swimming along and the older fish swims by and says, hey boys, how’s the water? And one fish turns to the other and says, what’s water? And you know, we’re in this swirl of relationships all the time that we take for granted. And so it’s particularly difficult for us to understand that this is something that we need to pay attention to, nurture, cultivate throughout life.
Steven Bartlett: What if I’m in a toxic relationship? What if my partner is an asshole? Is it, do I stay because of these physiological benefits, insulation from stress or whatever it might be? Or do I dump them and go out alone in life?
Robert Waldinger: Well, as with so many things, one size does not fit all. There’s a huge amount of discernment involved. So if you think about it, one question for a toxic relationship is, how much is at stake? How much do I have invested? So let’s say you’re married and you have children together. Then the idea is to work really hard to see, is there a way to salvage this relationship, if only for the children, but also because the partnership could have benefits.
And so what we would say is if there’s a lot invested, then we work harder to see, is there any way we can find ways to work out our differences? Sometimes there isn’t, and those relationships need to be ended.
But I want to point out that most relationships of any consequence have conflict. And so the real issue is not, are there conflicts? The real issue is, can we work out conflicts regularly in ways that make us both feel okay about ourselves and about each other? If we can’t do that, then those relationships often need to be stepped away from.
What Makes A Successful Relationship?
Steven Bartlett: When you looked at all of the relationships that are beneficial and are successful as a relationship, what are the factors that made those relationships most successful, if there are any?
Robert Waldinger: One of the things people talk about a lot is being able to be themselves, to be authentic, meaning not to have to hide important aspects of who I am in a relationship. And it’s not that we’re burying our souls all the time, but do I have to pretend that I’m someone I’m not? That’s exhausting and depleting. And so the idea is to be able to be yourself in a relationship of any consequence.
I think the other thing we find in good relationships is that people allow each other to change over time. I mean, we’re all constantly changing, we’re all moving targets. And so if we can allow each other to change and maybe even celebrate that change, the relationship is stable and is likely to last.
I mean, I think about my wife and I are about to celebrate our 37th anniversary. We are so different than we were 37 years ago. I mean, I’d never heard of Zen 37 years ago, and now it’s a big part of my life. My wife had to figure out, what do I do with this guy now who practices Zen? My wife has developed in ways I never expected. What we’ve had to do is learn about each other as we change and accept those changes and hopefully support each other in changing, which I think mostly my wife and I have been able to do, but part of it’s luck. I mean, it’s not like we’re such wonderful people. We’ve just been lucky to be able to support each other in those changes, but part of it is intentional.
And so I think that the best relationships involve being able to support each other in exploring new things, taking risks.
Steven Bartlett: One of the things that inhibits all of that is we have these expectations on our partner. We have an expectation of the role they’ll play, of who they’ll be, etc. How does that impact our chances of being successful in relationships?
Robert Waldinger: Yes. I mean, I don’t know if you remember this old Billy Joel song, I love you just the way you are, in which the lyrics are saying, don’t ever change. I just want you to be exactly the way you are right now. And that’s completely unrealistic.
And so we do, we have these expectations of who our partner is going to be. Parents have this of children. I mean, sometimes I’ll catch myself telling one of my sons who’s in his 30s, are you sure you don’t want to wear a warmer coat when you’re going outside? And he looks at me and says, Dad… he lives on his own.
He’s lived on his own for years. It’s like, come on. But I have to get out of this mode of being his parent in this helicoptering way, right? So we’re always having to readjust our expectations of each other in order to make relationships work.
Steven Bartlett: If I was one of your kids, and I said, Dad, give me one piece of relationship advice for how you and Mum have managed to stay together for those 37 odd years. But just I just want one piece of advice, Dad.
Robert Waldinger: Catch each other being good, instead of catching each other at doing the things that annoy you, right? I’m really good at noticing when my wife does things that annoy me. And I’m not good at remembering, oh my gosh, you know, she just made this great meal. She just made sure that I was on time to this meeting. She just reminded me to take my medication. You know, it’s like all these things that, oh my God, if she weren’t here, I would be a mess, right?
And so what I would say is, it’s really practicing gratitude. Gratitude practice is really just flipping our negatively biased minds on their heads, and essentially finding what’s good, what’s going right with the partnership. And when we do that, there’s usually so much to find that’s not wrong, that’s right about the relationship. And if you do that, I find that I’m happier in the relationship, even though there are plenty of times when it’s boring, it’s predictable, it’s annoying. As any long relationship is, there’s so much to be grateful for.
Why We’re All Spending Our Time Wrong?
Steven Bartlett: The other thing you talk about a lot in this book is about the use of our time and how we spend our time. Chapter five, kind of goes back to what we’re talking about a second ago about time management and discipline and all these things. One of the alarming things I got from chapter five was just how much time we waste unknowingly.
And I think maybe this is something that’s quite pertinent to your Zen practice. But I think you said that we spend half of our time in waking moments thinking about something other than the thing we’re currently doing.
Robert Waldinger: Yes. Yes.
Steven Bartlett: And, that people that do that are more unhappy. So people that spend more time ruminating about or with a wandering mind, as you called it, are the most unhappy.
Robert Waldinger: Yes. There’s actually good research on this from a different research group where they would actually ping people throughout the day at random times and say, are you thinking about what’s right in front of you now? Are you thinking about what’s current? And that’s where they get this data that says most people will respond, no, I was thinking about something else, the future, the past, whatever.
And, then they would also ask at the same time, how’s your mood right now? How happy are you? And they found that the people who spent more time thinking about what’s right in front of them were far and away happier. So a wandering mind is a less happy mind.
Steven Bartlett: In that chapter, you talk about multitasking as well. We all think, I mean, I’m, you know, this is one of the problems I had when I was writing my book, as I like to play music. With that has lyrics in it. So yeah, I don’t know, like R&B music or something. And I want to write at the same time.
And I eventually come to learn that my brain is incapable of doing two things. So it’s not actually listening to the music. It can’t listen to music and write at the same time. In chapter five, you talk about this, there’s research that shows our brain is not capable of doing more than one thing at a time.
Robert Waldinger: That’s right. You’re really switching back and forth really quickly. And it’s super inefficient. It’s an incredible waste of energy, because your brain takes a moment to get back into gear in the thing you’ve switched back to. And then it’s switching off again to something else. And so what — this idea of multitasking, oh, I can do so many things at once. It’s a fool’s errand, basically.
Steven Bartlett: Flow state, coming to that. Is it a thing?
Robert Waldinger: It is a thing.
Steven Bartlett: Is it a good thing?
Robert Waldinger: Yeah, it is a good thing.
Steven Bartlett: Prove it.
Robert Waldinger: Well, I don’t know if I can prove it. But well, actually, there’s been some good work by Csikszentmihalyi. That’s his name. And I can’t spell it. It’s a long name. He’s since passed away, but a very brilliant psychologist who did research on flow states. You know, so I’m a meditator. And many people say to me when they find that out, they, oh, I should meditate. And I often say, No, you shouldn’t. You should see if meditation feels good to you. And if it does do it, if it doesn’t feel good, find another state, a flow state, if you will, find another pastime that for you makes the time just fly by.
So, my wife is not a meditator. She has no interest in it. But she loves music. And she’s an avid pianist. She can sit for an hour and just be transported, playing the piano. That’s her flow state. For some people, it’s skiing down a ski slope. For some people, it’s working in a garden. For some people, it’s being on a soccer pitch.
My hope for people is that they find a flow state or maybe more than one and that they allow themselves those experiences of flow from time to time where they’re just so in the activity that time passes by effortlessly, without noticing.
Steven Bartlett: That’s so nice to hear and refreshing for people who have struggled with meditation, which I imagine is most people.
Robert Waldinger: Lots of people.
Steven Bartlett: And even on this podcast, when I have guests on, we often talk about the positive upside of doing meditative practice. There must be so many people that listen and go, I’ve tried it. It doesn’t work for me. But to know that like your hobby, that thing that just, as you said, that makes the time fly by is an equally effective, potentially form of meditation.
Robert Waldinger: Exactly.
Steven Bartlett: Making music or painting or whatever it might be, running.
Robert Waldinger: Really nourishing. I mean, it gives us energy. It gives us a sense of peace and equanimity to be in that kind of state.
Steven Bartlett: Quick one. As you guys know, we’re lucky enough to have BlueJeans by Verizon as a sponsor of this podcast. And for anyone that doesn’t know, BlueJeans is an online video conferencing tool that allows you to have slick, fast, high quality online meetings without all the glitches you might normally find with online meeting tools. And they have a new feature called BlueJeans Basic. BlueJeans Basic is essentially a free version of their top quality video conferencing tool.
That means you get an immersive video experience that is super high quality, super easy, and super, basically zero fuss, apart from all the incredible features like zero time limits on meeting calls. It also comes with high fidelity audio and video, including Dolby Voice, which is incredibly useful. They also have enterprise grade security so you can collaborate with confidence. It’s so smooth that it’s quite literally changing the game for myself and my team without compromising on quality.
To find out more, all you have to do is search bluejeans.com and let me know how you get on.
Over the last couple of, how long, maybe four months, I’ve been changing my diet, shall I say. Many of you who’ve really been paying attention to this podcast will know why. I’ve sat here with some incredible health experts. And one of the things that’s really come through for me, which has caused a big change in my life, is the need for us to have these superfoods, these green foods, these vegetables, and then a company I love so much, and a company I’m an investor in, and then a company that sponsors this podcast and that I’m on the board of, recently announced a new product, which absolutely spoke to exactly where I was in my life, and that is Huel, and they announced Daily Greens. Daily Greens is a product that contains 91 superfoods, nutrients, and plant-based ingredients, which helps me meet that dietary requirement with the convenience that Huel always offers. Unfortunately, it’s only currently available in the US, but I hope, I pray that it’ll be with you guys in the UK too. So if you’re in the US, check it out. It’s an incredible product. I’ve been having it here in LA for the last couple of weeks, and it’s a game changer.
What Leads To Happiness At Work?
On the subject of work, what did you notice in the study about the type of work that leads to the most happiness? I’ve really tried to distill, I think, over the last couple of years, what are the fundamentals of what we need in work to be happy?
And obviously, because of this real tectonic shift in how we work, and digital screens, and remote working, things are changing. I sometimes wonder if we’re sleepwalking into a world of work that we haven’t properly considered. Just because we can do something doesn’t mean necessarily we should.
Robert Waldinger: Yes, again, that path of least resistance. So we do know some things about this from some good research coming out of business schools. They do a lot of this kind of research on the conditions of work. But also, the Gallup organization, they did a survey of 15 million workers all over the world, all ages, all cultures, all ranks in a workplace. And their main question was, do you have a best friend at work? Only 30% of those 15 million workers said, yes, I have a best friend.
What that meant was, I have someone who I talk to about my life, about my personal life. It might be my child is struggling with math, or it could be anything. Just talk about what’s going on in your life. Those 30%, then they did all kinds of assessments of those people and talked to their bosses. They were better workers. They earned more money. They were better with customers. They were less likely to leave their jobs for a better offer, because they had people they wanted to show up for every day.
And so, what many leaders in the workplace think of as a distraction, socializing at work, turns out to be a hugely powerful factor for increasing productivity and increasing wellness and happiness at work. Those 70% of people who said, no, I don’t have a friend at work, 11 out of 12 of those people said, I’m pretty much disengaged from my job.
Steven Bartlett: 11 out of 12?
Robert Waldinger: 11 out of 12.
Steven Bartlett: Nearly all of them.
Robert Waldinger: Nearly all of them, whereas the 30% were much more engaged in their jobs. So, if you have friends, you’re also more engaged in your work. There’s something about those connections that is energizing and livening, and it spills over into the work itself.
Steven Bartlett: It’s so interesting. I sat with our head of culture at a marketing company, Flight Story, and we were talking about the KPIs that a head of culture and people should be tracking in the modern era. And one of the KPIs which I had in my last company and we introduced into Flight Story is the amount of communities that exist outside of the office. So, how many football teams? Do we have a women’s football team? Do we have a reading club? Do we have a, and are they active communities?
Because it’s really clear to me that like, in terms of retention, satisfaction, engagement in the work, if people are bound by this community in various different ways, everything is going to be better. And people don’t necessarily think about that in the modern world of work that you should be, as an employer, doing everything you can to create a, I don’t know, Flight Story football club, or a Diary of a CEO reading club or running club. It will have a huge positive impact for, of course, health and all of those things, physical health and all those things, but psychological health and social fitness, as you call it in the book, will go up. As employees, we don’t think that’s our business.
Robert Waldinger: Right, right. We don’t think it’s our business and it turns out to be so much our business. The other thing is, we, most of us spend more waking hours at work than we spend doing anything else in our lives for most of our adult life.
I mean, so if you’re not going to get the benefits of good connections with other people at work, you are missing a huge part of your life experience.
Steven Bartlett: But it didn’t used to need to be our business so much either. If you know what I mean, like we used to have other things within society, like even pubs have started shutting down because the economics don’t work out, and churches and these sort of social institutions outside of the office. And then you look at what’s going on with this kind of remote working situation post-pandemic, where the social institution of the office or working around people is also in decline.
What’s your view then on remote working and what would your message be to a CEO or leader or employer that has this maybe potential social pressure coming from wherever to say everyone should be able to work from home at all times, that’s a really good thing, versus the research you’ve done that shows the importance of in real life human connection?
Robert Waldinger: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Well, we don’t know enough yet about the difference between remote work and in-person work. We don’t know, for example, what gets filtered out on Zoom? What aspects of emotional communication get filtered out? We don’t know. And so we’re going to learn more in the next few years because people are studying this.
But then the question is, what do we do?
Steven Bartlett: And what do we know?
Robert Waldinger: I think we — well, what we know, right, and what do we know? Well, we know that some things are filtered out. If you think about it, when you were locked down and you were just on screens with people, and then you saw people again in person, I felt this upsurge of like, whoa, this is so great. It’s so good to see you in real life, right?
And so we know that there’s some truncation of the interpersonal experience. We just don’t know all the elements of it. By contrast, so I’m a psychiatrist, and I do psychotherapy. That’s my specialty. So every day I see people in talk therapy. If you had told me I could do talk therapy remotely, if it was meaningful, I would have said you were crazy. Well, it turns out you can, and most of my colleagues are doing it.
So there are aspects of remote work, of remote connection that are much better than we thought. We’re having to learn about this. But to your question of, well, what advice would I give to CEOs? First, I would say that the culture of fostering social connection needs to start with the CEO. It needs to start with leadership. It can’t just be something you delegate to your human resources department.
But then I would say also, be intentional, structure it, and that can be structured even on Zoom. So the Surgeon General in the United States, that’s the kind of head doctor. He’s like the figurehead of medicine, of public health. Vivek Murthy is his name. His platform has been emotional well-being and decreasing loneliness, particularly in the workplace. So what Vivek does is he has a staff meeting every week where the first five or 10 minutes are devoted to one staff member talking about something in their personal life that they’d like everybody else on the staff to know.
And people love this meeting. It’s their favorite, and it’s their favorite part of the meeting, right? Because they get to know about each other. I didn’t realize you were into fencing or you were into magic tricks or whatever it was. People just talk about their lives.
And so I think what we can do, even with remote work, is structure ways of knowing each other better, the ways that we used to be able to take for granted. Like you come to a meeting in an office and you spend a moment or two chatting with the person you happen to sit next to, and you might find out something about their life. How do you do that remotely? How do you do that on Zoom? And that’s what I think we have to figure out in some way if we’re going to have any hope of having meaningful connections in the workplace.
Steven Bartlett: One of the things that has been really, really positive about the shift we’ve seen in the world of work over the last two years is it feels like people have more control and autonomy. And control and autonomy is quite clearly a predictor of happiness, right?
Robert Waldinger: Yes, huge predictor. In fact, in the UK, they did the first study of this. Michael Marmot, you know, who did this amazing study, the white hole studies, where he found that the people who had more control and more autonomy stayed healthier, they were under less stress, and they stayed healthier.
Steven Bartlett: That always really, really stood out to me that there’s physiological health implications; you’re less likely to get things like heart disease if you feel like you have greater control over your life and work. And people that are working in jobs that when they don’t feel like they have autonomy, have physiological consequences; they’re more likely to get disease. So it’s very, very stark.
Robert Waldinger: Well, and it goes back, I think, to the stress hypothesis that there’s something about having no autonomy being confined and constantly frustrated that keeps, I suspect, keeps the body revved up in a kind of chronic stress mode that then breaks it down.
Constant Themes You See In Your Patients As Psychiatrist
Steven Bartlett: In your work as a psychiatrist, what is the like reoccurring thing that us as humans just seem to struggle with on an ongoing basis? You talked about at the start, it was things to do with like, you know, permanence or identity, whatever else. Are there other things? I remember sitting here with Risa Pia. And she talked to me about how we like fundamentally live with the patients she sees suffer with a feeling like they’re not enough. That seems to be a consistent theme for her. What are the consistent themes in your practice as a psychiatrist?
Robert Waldinger: Well, I would say that sense of not being enough is a very important, very common one. And it speaks to a sort of larger problem of self-criticism, that many of us are quite critical of ourselves for just any number of things. All of us have a different set of things we’re critical about. But a lot of what I work with, with people is first showing them the self-criticism because often it’s like the air they breathe.
Steven Bartlett: So I come into a practice. And what is a typical symptom of someone that might come and see you? And why would they have come to see you?
Robert Waldinger: They might come with depression; they might come with anxiety; they might come with a sense that life is meaningless, and they’re not getting any joy in life. They might have come because a spouse has died, or a child has died. And they’re not able to cope. They’re just finding life isn’t, doesn’t seem worth living anymore.
Steven Bartlett: And what’s your process from there? What they say their symptom? I’m depressed, let’s say.
Robert Waldinger: We talk. So I am a psychiatrist, but I tend not to reach for my prescription pad right away. I do use medication when we need it. But first, we talk. And often, if I can help somebody just to tell me what’s wrong, a lot of the symptoms will ease. And yeah, I mean, you can — if somebody is, is, if it’s life and death, I will often use medication right away to make sure somebody stays safe. But many times people will come and after two or three meetings, they will feel less depressed because they’ve been able to unburden themselves and to talk about something they feel is so horrible or so shameful. And I can help them understand it and often normalize it. A lot of what I do, and a lot of what my research does is normalize things to say, yeah, this is part of being human.
And for many people, you know, a lot of times, one of my teachers used a phrase that I find so helpful. He said, we’re always comparing our insides to other people’s outsides. You know, I’m always comparing the me that some mornings wakes up feeling kind of lost. And, you know, like, I don’t know what I’m doing with my life or down with the curated lives that we see on social media, or the game faces that we put on for each other. I mean, you know, we’re — you and I are trying to look okay for each other. Now, you know, I’m not, we’re not telling each other about our miseries right now because we have a job to do. We’re doing this interview. And that’s fine. That’s good. We need to do that.
But it can leave each of us with the impression that other people are always fine. They’ve got it figured out. And I don’t. So a lot of my work as a psychiatrist is to help people see, oh, you know, no, this is actually part of being human, that, you know, yes, when you lose a loved one, this is a trauma. And that yes, many people feel like they don’t want to get out of bed in the morning. Many people feel like they can’t go to work. And let’s talk about that. Let’s talk about your loved one. Let’s talk about what the loss is like.
And when you really take people through that and take people through what’s hurting so much, a lot of times the pain will ease tremendously. Sometimes we use medication to help and that’s good. But many times, it’s not needed.
Characteristics of Someone That Can Change
Steven Bartlett: What are the factors of somebody that can be helped from from all you’ve seen in your work? What are the things you go? Well, if they exhibit this, this and this, then I think we can work with them. And I’m saying this, it’s worth saying because I want to build the bridge. We all have people in our lives that we want to help. Someone that’s struggling with something. I’m not saying it’s our job to help them or to be a fixer, as Simon Sinek taught me not to be.
But I do find it useful to know. That’s kind of the question I’m trying to answer here is like that person we all have in our lives. You know, maybe they’re struggling with something. Maybe it’s a recurring issue. Which ones of those can be helped? What are the core factors?
Robert Waldinger: The ones who can be helped are the ones who are willing to look inward. So some people will never go for help, right? They’ll never want to be curious about themselves, often because it’s scary at the deepest level. Who are saying this is my story, and I’m sticking to it. This is my worldview. And I am not going to inquire about my own role in my difficulties, right?
The people who can be helped are the people who sooner or later get to a point where they say, “Okay, maybe I’m making some contribution to my troubles. And if so, what is that?”
Steven Bartlett: Responsibility.
Robert Waldinger: Some responsibility, some responsibility. For some people, it’s humiliating. It’s impossible to even imagine that I am the architect of some of my own misery. Actually, many times a couple will come for couples therapy. And if one person says, “The only thing you have to do is fix the other person,” you know that it’s not going to work. Because any couple has learned a set of dance steps they’ve developed. And what you have to help the couple to do is look at their dance steps, and then modify them. And it’s always two ways. It’s always both people contributing to difficulties in the couple, just as both people contribute to what goes right.
It’s the person who says, “No way, am I any part of the problem here?” That’s the person who can’t really be helped by these means.
Steven Bartlett: It’s the reason why sometimes we don’t want to take responsibility because confronting what the inward perspective might show us, as you said, is really uncomfortable for self-esteem, which is already on the floor.
Robert Waldinger: Yes, yes, that’s it. I mean —
Steven Bartlett: So I’m playing defense.
Robert Waldinger: I’m playing defense, and the defense has to be so complete. So think about the people who are so self-aggrandizing and have to tell you with every sentence how wonderful they are, who can never apologize, who can never admit doing anything wrong. Those are often the people who feel the most vulnerable, and who put up this rigid defense. Because to entertain that they’re fallible, that they can make a mistake, that they can do something wrong, threatens a total collapse of the self. And so those many times are the people who just can’t at all entertain that question of what could I be doing that I might be able to change to make things better.
A Framework To Perfectly Use Your Time
Steven Bartlett: Do you have a framework for how — I’ve heard you talk about how precious time is in your book and about attention. Do you have some kind of framework that you use to decide how to invest your time? Why did you come here today versus being somewhere else? You live in Boston, right?
Robert Waldinger: Yes.
Steven Bartlett: So you’ve flown over to the UK, to Europe, you’ve been doing some appointments in Europe. How are you deciding to deploy your time? Is there a framework?
Robert Waldinger: There’s definitely a framework. For me, it goes back to that vow of service. So this study has been going for 85 years. We’ve published hundreds of scientific papers, but we published them in academic journals, very technical. No one reads those journals, literally almost no one.
And so what we found was that people were hungry for this kind of information. I mean, the reason why my TED talk went viral was because I was speaking about things that we know from science that we haven’t told anybody in the wider world. So my mission, I said, look, I don’t have that many years left in my career. My mission now is going to be to bring this science that we’ve worked so hard to develop and bring it to people in ways that they can use, to bring it in understandable form rather than highly technical, geeky form, which is what most of my scientific papers are.
Steven Bartlett: Why? Why not do something else?
Robert Waldinger: Because relieving suffering is one of the most meaningful things I can do with my life. And given that I’m not going to be remembered 50 years from now, easing some suffering right now is the best thing I can think of to do.
Steven Bartlett: What’s it doing for you?
Robert Waldinger: It makes me feel like my life has some purpose. That and being with my family, you know, my wife and my kids and my friends. Because the question that Zen keeps asking and making me ask is, well, what’s being human about? I mean, it’s so unlikely to be born, first of all, right? And then to live a life. And so why am I doing this? And so that’s the answer I have given myself. It’s not by any means the right answer. God knows it’s not the only answer. It’s just my answer. And it’s my answer for now.
Steven Bartlett: Is life — is there a point to life in your view?
Robert Waldinger: The point is what we make of it. There is, you know, this is the evolving of the universe. The universe is constantly changing. It’s morphing and changing. Our species is going to morph and change, probably be extinct, right? Every species eventually becomes extinct.
Steven Bartlett: So do we matter then if we’re going to be extinct?
Robert Waldinger: I don’t know. We matter for the moment. We matter to each other. I mean, that’s another reason why I spent so much of my adult life prioritizing relationships and studying relationships. Because I think, what can we do? Well, we can matter to each other.
Steven Bartlett: What have you gotten wrong? And what do you?
Robert Waldinger: I’ve gotten so much wrong. Where do I start? But okay, I’ll start. Top of the list. Top of the list is I’ve worried too much about what other people thought. So one of the things I’ve done is I, for example, I was in a job that was very prestigious. When I was young, I was director of a training program at a prestigious program for psychiatrists. I hated it. I realized, and I was on a track to be the chair of a psychiatry department at a fancy academic institution. And I realized I just hated the work. I just hated being an administrator. To me, it was like washing dishes.
The same problems came up over and over again. And I would sit in these meetings with people who were obviously very engaged. I’m glad they were engaged, but I just didn’t care about it. And I finally had to say to myself first, and then to everybody else, I don’t want to do this. This is not my path. And it took me longer than I wish it had, but I’m glad I did it. I had to learn that lesson in order to, you know, that was one of those badges of achievement, right?
And so for me, what I’ve gotten wrong is thinking that the badges of achievement were going to be satisfying and realizing that they’re not. I mean, for me, a conversation like this is actually satisfying. I’d rather do this. And I don’t even care how many people listen to your podcast, although I’m sure it’s a lot of people. I understand it is, right? But I don’t care. What I really care about is having this conversation with you, that that feels like a really good use of my time.
How Do We Make Our Society Happier?
Steven Bartlett: If I made you prime minister or president of the world.
Robert Waldinger: No, please.
Steven Bartlett: No, we need you, Robert. And I told you to redesign society in a way that would lead us all to having greater levels of fulfillment and happiness. What are some of the first things you would do in terms of the design of the way society operates at the moment? What would you ban? What would you introduce and enforce?
Robert Waldinger: What I would introduce is massive support for children and the people who take care of children. Because it’s the best long-term investment that actually they’ve done some studies of this. There’s a — James Heckman is an economist at the University of Chicago who published a paper in science where he analyzed hundreds of studies of when we invest in an age group, where do we get the biggest bang for the buck, right? If we invest in zero to four years old or five to eight or all five to eight or all the way up, what happens when people get into adulthood? Who’s the most self-sufficient? Who’s the healthiest? And what he found was that for every dollar we invest in age zero to four, that we get a huge payoff compared to every other age group.
That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t support people in other age groups, but it means if we could invest in children, in young children and childcare, so much less poverty, substance abuse, misery down 20 years, 30 years down the line. It’s a long-term investment.
Steven Bartlett: Interesting. And what about on an individual level? So if you were to give me advice then on an individual level, and maybe we’ll put this in the frame of one of your children turning to you and saying again, dad, I’m off to live my life. What is the way you would recommend I design my life at a very fundamental level for it to be a fulfilling life? What do I need to know, Robert, dad?
Robert Waldinger: Invest in people. Really invest in all kinds of relationships, including casual peripheral ones.
Steven Bartlett: Which is what you’ve had to do following your involvement in the study, right?
Robert Waldinger: Yeah.
Steven Bartlett: That intentionality of like pouring into relationships, even though it doesn’t feel natural.
Robert Waldinger: Yeah. Yeah. Because so many benefits come back. It’s not — you know, they see us through hard times. What they find, for example, is that your most peripheral relationships are the people who are most likely to find you your next job, not your closest friends, right? So even these peripheral relationships are of great value to us. And that happens to be because they’re not in your social network. They know many people who you’ve never heard of and can connect you with people you would have no other connection with.
Steven Bartlett: I’m definitely one of those people that has a bias towards being on my own, being isolated, just working on my own. And I’m not good at watering my peripheral relationships. I’m like — five out of five at nurturing my close relationships. But outside of that, it’s like a concrete wall. I think a lot of people are like that. I think a lot of people really struggle. I don’t know, like struggle with, especially again, we talked earlier on about men struggling with social interaction because of their inability to be vulnerable and open. Does it really matter? Like, does it really matter to me that I — you know, I’m 30 years old now? Do I start hitting people up that I’ve not spoken to in a couple of years and start asking them to go for coffee?
Robert Waldinger: It doesn’t matter if you don’t feel a lack.
Steven Bartlett: How do I know if I feel a lack?
Robert Waldinger: You just check in with yourself. I mean, seriously, the reason I say that, you know, it gets to this kind of introverts versus extroverts spectrum that — you know, some people have said, well, if you’re shy, does that mean you’re screwed? That you’re not supposed to be shy. And no, it doesn’t. What it means is that all of us are on some kind of spectrum temperamentally from shyness to extroversion, and that some people don’t need many people in their life at all. And in fact, having a lot of people around is stressful.
Other people get their energy from lots of people and they want more people in their life. So, there is a way that you really can check in and say, what do I need more of? What do I have enough of? Maybe what do I need less of right now?
Steven Bartlett: And people that are neurodivergent have sometimes different social needs to those that are sort of neurotypical, I think the phrase is, which goes to show that there’s not a one-size-fits-all approach to. I say this in part because I’ve hit my friends up the other week and I said, after reading your work and reflecting over the years and the importance of social connections, I was like, why don’t I try and get all of my friends to live in the same place? Worth a try. Some of them live, like of my five, six best friends, one of them lives in Dubai, one of them traveling around the world with his baby from Tulum to wherever, a couple of them live up north in the UK.
If connection and social connections and social ties are insulating for my health, if they are the number one cause of happiness, why don’t we make an effort to try and organize our lives as communities? I hit them all up. I said, hey guys, let’s all move to London. Fuck off, Steve. No, I’m joking. No, it was like, you know, life happens. Well, I work over here and I —
Robert Waldinger: Yeah. Well, that’s what, you know, we’re seeing this, that actually these social fabrics are breaking down in more traditional societies where people did stay in the place they were born. So India, people are really worried about this in India now, certainly in China, where people are leaving their villages. So in a typical family, there would be the grandparents, maybe even great grandparents, and the parents and the children, right? And the grandparents’ job was to take care of the grandkids while the parents went off and worked.
Now what’s happening is that people are leaving their villages to seek economic opportunity elsewhere, like in Dubai or in the big cities in China. And everybody’s losing their social fabric and their social role. And so I think there’s a great deal of worry about this. You’re noticing this and you’re saying, wait, I want to knit this fabric back together. I want my friends to come together and let’s all hang out together and support each other.
My wife and I are saying, you know, we should like develop this old people’s home as we get older and we should get all of our friends who are getting old to get together and live together. But it never kind of works out that way because everybody’s kids are moving to a different place. And, you know, and so it’s this question of how do we manage these social fabrics that are fragile, that once they’re torn, it’s really hard to put them back together, but they provide so much benefit.
Steven Bartlett: Are you hopeful? You’re not, are you? Your reaction then told me you weren’t hopeful.
Robert Waldinger: You’re right. I wasn’t in that moment.
Steven Bartlett: You weren’t. I can see it.
Robert Waldinger: I wanted to tell you I was hopeful.
Steven Bartlett: I can see exactly that.
Robert Waldinger: But I’m not about the social fabric stuff.
Steven Bartlett: I’m not hopeful either. I mean, there is evidence that sometimes we need to feel the pain before we change. But I think there is so much influence that is driving us towards prioritizing other things and not the social fabric stuff that we’ve talked about that will probably win out over the long term.
Robert Waldinger: I think so. I think so. And the problem is, you know, we evolved, we think, to be social animals, that it was safer to be in groups. And that’s why, you know, we passed on our genes more often if we hung together in groups. And so the problem is that the way we evolved, it’s a stressor to be alone. It’s a stressor to be more isolated. But life is taking us in these directions of greater isolation. So I’m not hopeful. And you called me out on it. You could see it flicker across my face. And then I think I was trying to hide it.
Steven Bartlett: Okay, I’m going to ask you the question in the diary. This is the question left by our last guest for you. But then I am going to ask for a call of optimism. So the question left to you is, if you could go back to one era in civilization, what era would you pick? Why? And what would your job be?
Robert Waldinger: Interesting. I would go back to ninth century China. And I would be a Zen monk.
Steven Bartlett: Why?
Robert Waldinger: Because it was the way to know about life in a radically different way than society was going at the time. And I would just like to know, just because I’ve studied koans, and I’ve studied ancient Zen literature, and I’d just like to know what it really would feel like to be one of those monks in one of those monasteries with a teacher. And I can envision it in my mind, but I’d really love to experience it. So if I could time travel, that’s where I’d go.
Steven Bartlett: If you could only say one last thing to everybody that was listening, if this was maybe your last day on the earth, and you know, you’ve got this mission that you’ve been on for the last couple of decades to serve others and to help them with their suffering. If you only had 60 seconds to leave a message with them based on your work as a Zen priest and a psychiatrist and the studies that you’ve done, what would that message be?
Robert Waldinger: It would be, make your default setting kindness. Just go back to that whenever you have a choice, whenever you’re at a point where you’re trying to decide how to take the next step. Make that your choice.
Steven Bartlett: Why?
Robert Waldinger: It’s what Thich Nhat Hanh, the Zen teacher used to call nourishing healthy seeds, that if you nourish those seeds, that’s what grows. If you nourish other seeds, like the seeds of power, or dominance, or anger, that’s what will grow.
Steven Bartlett: Robert, thank you. Thank you for giving me your time today. Thank you for doing this interview. I know you’ve done many of them, but this one.
Robert Waldinger: This was really a wonderful conversation.
Steven Bartlett: I really mean what I said where you talked about seeds there. Your TED talk planted a seed in my mind that just grew slowly over time. I was never able to shake it. It’s funny because I was a young man who would, I think that was probably the thing that had the biggest impact on me reassessing my priorities in life. Because you’ve provided irrefutable evidence from a huge group of people with the study that you’re the director of, over a long period of time, that as I said at the start of this conversation, just stared in the face of the way I was living my life.
Because of that, because that seed was planted in my mind, I gradually, nothing happens overnight. I think through confirmation bias, once the seed’s been planted, you then find things as you go on that confirm that seed and water it and mean that it flourishes into being a tree or a plant or a flower. And that’s what happened. I realized that relationships and connections and investing there, having a partner would be profoundly valuable and beneficial to my life and my work, and most importantly of all my North Star, which is happiness. And that just nudged my life in a slightly different direction.
But then think about it, Robert, I then have this podcast, I then write quotes, I then speak to people on the internet and social media and on the telly. And that slight nudging in that new direction has made me nudge other people in that direction. And that started with that video for me. So thank you, because I’m sure the dominoes falling has caused other people to be nudged slightly in that direction as well. And that starts with you. So thank you so much.
Robert Waldinger: Well, what you’ve just told me is a real gift, because that’s what I would hope. When we talked about what my mission is right now, it’s hoping that this kind of information and these ideas move people to shape their lives differently. And so it means a lot.
Steven Bartlett: Thank you so much.
Robert Waldinger: Thank you.