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Four secrets from the world’s longest happiness study

A Harvard study traced people into old age, asking them about their proudest moments and regrets. The results can help us reframe our parenting priorities.

Forget the external markers of achievement: Ultimately, most of us just want our kids to become happy adults.

How can we provide the foundation for our kids’ happiness? I’m talking about lifelong fulfillment, not instant gratification through more iPad time or dessert. When it comes down to it, that’s our biggest directive as parents, right? Forget the external markers of achievement: Ultimately, most of us just want our kids to become happy adults.

How do we crack the happiness code? Is there one? Well, yes, and Harvard University (surprise!) has it. The Harvard Study of Adult Development, which launched in 1938, is the longest scientific study of happiness ever conducted, tracing people from their teenage years into old age and gleaning major insights about what makes a good life along the way. Mass General psychiatrist Robert Waldinger, MD, also a professor of psychiatry at Harvard, now runs the study. With the luxury of time, he’s been able to see which adults turn out happy and why. Waldinger’s upcoming book, “The Good Life,” examines the factors in childhood that shape satisfaction later in life.


I got him to spill some of the secrets in advance.

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Happy people nurture good relationships. Waldinger says that emotional intelligence and relationship acumen are bigger predictors of success than IQ, and the best place to teach these skills is at mealtime.

“We all know people who are the smartest people on the planet but can’t find their way out of a paper bag when it comes to human relationships,” Waldinger says. Those people might be outwardly successful but not particularly fulfilled.

Parents can foster these social skills early on. Eat meals together (doesn’t have to be dinner if you’re going in 100 different directions). But eke out a time, because family meals aren’t just about reconnecting as a family: They’re a dress rehearsal for real life, from learning how to ask questions to discussing differences in opinion and waiting your turn to speak.


“There are all these modeling things that can happen at the dinner table, like learning about not interrupting,” says Waldinger, who has two grown sons. When his kids were younger and rambunctious, he handed out five M&Ms at the start of dinner. If they interrupted, they had to put an M&M in the center of the table. If they kept quiet for a few minutes, they could take it back. (It’s fun to be the child of a psychiatrist, right?)

“How do you deal with conflicts? Those skills are just huge in helping us have happier relationships everywhere — and therefore being happier and staying healthy,” he says.

Happy people aren’t self-absorbed. “When we asked people to look back on their lives when they were in their 80s, we said: ‘What are you proudest of? And what do you most regret?’ And what people were proudest of almost always was relationships. … People didn’t mention the awards they’d won or the money they made. They said: ‘I raised healthy kids. I had a good marriage. I mentored people at work,’” Waldinger says.

The moral of this story: People are happiest when they make investments in things that are beyond themselves, so teach your kids to do the same.

“Help kids learn about the satisfaction of being interested in others and being interested in causes that are important, learning about how satisfying it can be to do things for other people. This sets a stage for satisfaction as you get older — not so you have it on your resume when you apply to college. You really get an inner glow when you help people,” he says.


Help your child find a cause they’re interested in (mine wants to save polar bears) and connect it to volunteerism.

“Find what your kids are interested in and pair it with doing good in the world,” he says.

Happy people avoid toxic tribalism. When you’re a kid, your social life seems like the most important thing in the world. Growing up in Acton in the early 1990s, I distinctly remember feeling like I was destined to become a nobody because I wasn’t a soccer star. The drama! Fast-forward: I am not a nobody (I’m writing this, right?). Now, I have a 12-year-old who was in a snit recently because his friends are on a different school bus. I’m pretty sure my son’s bus woes will not determine his life’s trajectory.

But how can I put that in perspective for him?

Waldinger says it’s easy to see social life as us versus them: bad guys versus good guys, cool kids versus nerds, athletes versus artsy kids, kids on the fun bus versus the boring bus. Instead, help your kids see other people — and themselves — as individuals.

“One of the biggest tasks of adolescence is identity formation, and identity formation can often lapse into toxic tribalism,” he says, resulting in cliques and “othering” behavior, where people are seen as bad or good. Help your kids find the middle ground.


“We’re all human. We’re all just trying our best. Nobody gets up in the morning saying, ‘I’m going to be a [jerk].’ … Everybody is trying to have a good life, and everybody’s trying to do what they feel is the right stuff,” he says.

So, for example, if your child feels snubbed by a group, encourage them to become friends with people individually. Maybe a member of the football team also really likes guitar; maybe one of the “cool” girls is actually warm and friendly when alone.

“That clique may not be as impenetrable as it seems. Don’t ‘other’ everybody; don’t assume that all the girls are mean who won’t sit with you at lunch. Maybe make a little effort with one of them who’s kind of a nice kid,” he says.

The other side of the individualistic coin? Finding your people. Just as kids should learn to see members of cliques as separate people, they should also seek out people who appreciate their uniqueness.

“Each of my kids was kind of quirky. One of my guys was a math nerd. One was an exhibitionist theater kid. So they found the math nerds and the theater kids. They didn’t aspire to be the football players and the cheerleaders,” he says. “It’s about finding people whom you like and who like you. It’s both not othering people who seem like they’re in a clique and finding people who can be your people.”


Happy people don’t worry about what other people think. OK, some of us are still working on this as adults. However, being hung up on other people’s opinions is a huge regret in old age, according to the Harvard study.

“When we asked, ‘What was your biggest regret?’ a lot of people said, ‘I wish I hadn’t spent so much time worrying about what other people think,’” Waldinger says.

Maybe your kids’ hobbies are quirky or weird. That’s great: It makes them who they are.

“Don’t let the things you love go just because somebody else says, ‘Oh, that’s not cool.’ If you love something, let yourself love it,” he says.

This might be a hard lesson for a tween who desperately wants to fit in, but it’s a significant predictor of future happiness.

“Encourage your kids to keep loving what they love. They can even be quiet about it. If you love playing the piano and that’s not cool in your group, just quietly do your thing — because the things you love are valuable and make you who you are,” he says.

Waldinger recalls growing up in sports-focused Des Moines, Iowa, where being a scholarly kid wasn’t exactly cool.

“The football players and the cheerleaders were gods, and loving school was: Are you kidding me? So I just did it, and I learned to do it quietly. I had lots of friends, but I didn’t talk about school. You could say, ‘Well, that’s a shame.’ But then I went to a college where people loved school,” he says. “I didn’t give it up. I didn’t do what I could have done, which is pretended school wasn’t important and got lousy grades, because it wouldn’t have been me. The point is: Love what you love. You can be quiet about it if it’s not the flavor of the month right now — but don’t let things you love go.”

The book comes out on Jan. 10. Learn more about it, and the Harvard study, here.

Kara Baskin can be reached at kara.baskin@globe.com. Follow her @kcbaskin.