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Study Shows You’re Nobody Until Somebody Loves You

“We may be capable of extraordinary feats of intellect and creativity … but when it comes to making decisions about our lives, we humans are often bad at knowing what is good for us.” This observation from The Good Life: Lessons From the World’s Longest Scientific Study of Happiness may seem obvious to most readers—too many short-term indulgences often lead to long-term misery—but there are less obvious reasons that Americans today are confused about how to achieve a certain level of personal satisfaction and well-being. There are cultural and political messages pushing them into what are often less fulfilling and more destructive directions.

The Good Life is based on information (interviews, blood samples, etc.) collected by the Harvard Study of Adult Development on 724 men and more than 1,300 of their descendants starting in 1938. Some of the young men were once students at Harvard while the others were teenagers growing up in the poorer neighborhoods of Boston, Mass.

There is much conventional wisdom in The Good Life. The authors, Robert Waldinger and Marc Schulz, describe how often people think that more money will make them happier, but in fact there is little evidence that this is true, at least past a certain point. “We are resilient, industrious, creative creatures who can survive incredible hardship, laugh our way through tough times, and come out stronger on the other end.” But “we also get used to better circumstances. Our emotional well-being cannot improve to infinity. We settle in. We tend to take things for granted.”

The authors contrast John and Leo, two of the original Harvard graduates from the study. Leo felt compelled to move home to Vermont after he graduated because his father died and mother was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. John was able to single-mindedly pursue his legal career. He earned a lot more than Leo and even ended up teaching some law classes at the University of Chicago. Leo married young, became a high school teacher, and had four children. John married twice and reported that he had a distant relationship with his children. Leo was much happier.

It wasn’t just that John wanted to earn more money. He wanted to achieve professional success. As the authors note, “There are many participants in the Harvard Study who held ‘dream jobs’—from medical researchers to successful authors to wealthy Wall Street brokers—who were nonetheless unhappy at work. And there are inner city participants who held ‘unimportant’ or difficult jobs and yet derived much satisfaction and meaning from them.”

So while it is easy for people to acknowledge that money can’t buy happiness, it is harder for people to believe that great careers can’t guarantee personal fulfillment. A recent Pew survey for Time found that 88 percent of American parents want their children to have a job they enjoy doing. That’s compared with 21 percent who want them to get married and 20 percent who want their offspring to have children.

It is a paradox of modern liberal attitudes that on the one hand careers are supposed to provide fulfillment—all the fulfillment that maybe families and friends used to provide—but at the same time, menial jobs or jobs that are done by less educated people are considered a burden and to be avoided at all costs. Public policy seems shaped by this idea—debt forgiveness for college graduates so they can go into low-paying white-collar jobs while eliminating work requirements for the lower classes. The idea that having a set of responsibilities for supporting other people—whether it is coal-mining or caring for one’s children—and giving life meaning and purpose, does not seem to occur to these thinkers. Instead, careers are simply about freedom, autonomy, and self-fulfillment.

It is a shame that the original study did not sample women too—though the second generation interviews include daughters of the first set of participants—because nowhere is this dynamic more visible than in the cultural messages women get. Pursuing their careers without hindrance from other forces seems to be the main memo that women receive from the media and academic elites.

It is a credit to the authors that though they briefly mention the structural factors—sexism, income inequality, etc.—that stall success for some adults, they also repeat over and over that these factors are not determinative and “it is never too late” to change them. They mention adverse childhood experiences, which are commonly understood now to affect children’s development, but they also note that childhood trauma is not determinative of future success. The Good Life sometimes has the feel of a self-help book except that instead of simply repeating mantras about thinking positive, they tell us about the data that have been collected over 80 years and intersperse them with stories of real people’s lives.

In the field of social science, such optimism is so rare these days it is worth noticing. Both academic researchers and more popular writers are committed to publishing books about the structural reasons that women, racial minorities, and poor people can never get ahead in life. From The New Jim Crow to Evicted to Caste to Screaming on the Inside, the message from our social science experts is that the system is rigged against you. The only alternative is moving to Scandinavia or instituting a vast scheme of reparations here in the United States.

Not only do the authors of The Good Life never mention their longing for living in another country or the sense that the federal government can fix people’s problems through tax policies or universal child care, they also suggest that there are important lessons for all people to learn from their survey, which is largely comprised of white men. They tell the story of Ananya, an Indian-born student of one of the authors who doubted that she could learn anything from the tales of the men in the study. After spending a couple of days with the files of one man, she thought differently. “Even though the particulars of this one participant’s life were so different from her own in so many ways—he came of age on a different continent, lived life with white rather than brown skin, identified as a man not a woman, never went to college, Ananya saw reflections of herself in his psychological experiences and challenges.” This is basically social science heresy. How did these men reflect her “lived experience?”

Reading these files and understanding which people lived long lives and were relatively satisfied when they reached old age, the authors have no trouble finding the common denominator. Making money and landing your dream job are not predictors of happiness, the authors write, but the relationships you have are. They talk about interactions with colleagues at work, casual contact with baristas at your coffee shop, childhood friendships, marriage, and family. Having more regular, substantive, in-person interactions with people will improve your health and well-being. The Good Life encourages readers to engage with strangers, to ask people questions, to open themselves up to others, to be good listeners—all in order to avoid the loneliness that seems to plague more and more Americans.

Unfortunately, they don’t seem to make much of a distinction between different kinds of relationships people can have. There seems to be little curiosity about the difference in outcomes for people who grew up in homes with single parents compared with those who had fathers in the home. They don’t seem to make much distinction between marriage and cohabitation either in terms of the long-term happiness and security of the spouses. “The essential point is that close, nurturing units of people that have a formative effect on our lives can come from a variety of places, include a variety of people, and be called any number of things. What matters is not just who we consider to be family, but what our closest relationships mean to us over the course of our lives.”

This is no doubt true on some level, but the research on the impact of marriage, not just “nurturing units of people,” is quite clear, and it would be surprising if the study did not show some correlation between two-parent households and children’s happiness and success or the difference in happiness between people in cohabiting relationships versus marriages.  Nevertheless, Waldinger and Schulz’s book remains a countercultural work of social science, and if more people took up their advice, Americans would be more likely to live a good life.

The Good Life: Lessons From the World’s Longest Scientific Study of Happiness

by Robert Waldinger and Marc Schulz

Simon and Schuster, 352 pp., $28.99

Naomi Schaefer Riley, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and the Independent Women’s Forum, is the author of No Way to Treat a Child: How the Foster Care System, Family Courts, and Racial Activists Are Wrecking Young Lives.

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