Living the Good Life: Q&A with Harvard Psychiatrist and TEDx Phenom Dr. Robert Waldinger

Welcome to our new Cup of Calm series, where we’ll feature interviews with interesting people and experts who share their journey to resilience and their wisdom on wellbeing.

What makes for a happy life? It’s a question we all ask ourselves and continually make strides to answer in different ways and by new means—making more money, moving somewhere new, taking a new job, you name it. Robert Waldinger, renowned Harvard psychiatrist, Zen priest, and psychoanalyst, has spent much of his career researching the answer. He directs the Harvard Study of Adult Development, which at 78 years running (and counting) is likely the longest study of adult life ever done. His TED talk “What makes a good life?” has been viewed over 13 million times, making it one of the most popular TED talks of all time. Here, he shares some of the most inspiring insights about relationships and talks about his own journey to happiness and resilience.

Ok, so tell us. What is the secret to a happy, fulfilling life?
It’s all about relationships. The short message is that relationships make us happier.
However, the longer message is about how it takes work—and constant work—to tend to relationships. We’re never in a place where we can say, “Okay my relationships are good, that’s it, I’m done.” People are always changing, we’re always changing, so relationships are always changing. Taking care of our relationships is a project that keeps going, but it’s worth it. It’s worth the investment.

Why relationships? Why not money and fame? What’s the benefit?
Our research has shown that relationships not only keep people happier—so, emotionally better—they kept people physically healthier. When these results first began to come out in our data, it was a surprise. One of the things I talk about with medical students is that when people come to them for care, doctors shouldn’t limit themselves to asking about physical problems and physical symptoms. They need to ask about their patients’ lives, how they’re feeling about things, and are there any big stressors right now in their lives, because those are going to make a big difference in their physical health—even in how they heal after surgery.

How can we maintain strong, healthy relationships?
The first tip is pay attention. And that comes from my Zen background. We’re always distracted. We’re with people but at the same time we’re on our phones. How many times have you sat with people, over drinks or dinner, and everybody’s on their phone? My students sit in seminars that I teach and they have their phones out and their laptops out. And we do this with the people we’re closest to. You see pictures of families on beautiful vacations where everybody’s looking at their phones. The remedy is simple: notice each other and pay attention. If you keep noticing, you stay current on how somebody is—what their life is like, what their day is like. You have to put in that kind of ongoing time paying attention to somebody in order to keep a relationship healthy.

How does this lesson about relationships affect work culture?
I have one son who is a millennial working at a typical millennial company, and there’s a lot more emphasis on quality of work life and community. Creating a space and a culture where people can feel engaged with each other and connected probably makes people want to stay at their companies more. It makes them want to go to work each day more; they don’t feel isolated and they feel connected with each other and invested in some shared thing. There’s always been lip service paid to that, but I think there’s more real attention to it now, and actually designing work spaces and work schedules to make it happen more, and make it more likely to happen—and that I see as a good thing.

Now to switch gears a bit. You’re a Zen priest, which means you have shown a deep commitment to studying and teaching the practice of Zen principles and meditation. What made you start meditating?
It started with a dim awareness that a lot of things that seemed important to me and the people around me, weren’t actually very important. I was operating in a world where what mattered was how much money you earned and whether you had a fancy title. And I don’t mean earning enough money to pay your basic bills—that I understand is important. It was more about, “Do I have a big enough house?” or “Do I have a fancy enough job title?” Fifty years from now we’re all gonna be dead and forgotten, so who cares? But we were all still worried about it. The first inkling I got of a worldview that addressed this was Buddhism. I was interested in it as a philosophy. And then I found meditation really satisfying. It was this combination of the ideas being compelling and the meditations being grounding that made me keep doing it.

As a Zen priest and dedicated meditator—someone who is especially mindful of your attention and focus—how do you approach the elusive work/life balance?
It’s a constant work in progress. I’m always finding balance, getting off-balance, re-finding balance. Some weeks it feels like too much, some weeks it feels just fine. My experience is that you never get to a place where the balance is good and stays good forever—it’s always a calibration act. I was not doing a serious meditation practice or involved in my Zen life when my kids were young. But once my kids got into middle school and high school and didn’t care where I was anymore, I was more free to go places. I could go to retreats and they wouldn’t even notice for the first couple days that I wasn’t home! Whereas when they were little, it was really important that I would be right there and as available as I could. So some of it depends on what phase of life you’re in, what the balance is. For me now, my wife and I both really enjoy our work, so we work a lot. We probably work a little too much, but we’re enjoying it. So my balance keeps changing. That’s probably the bottom line.

And how does your mindfulness practice fit into that?
Mindfulness is a part of my balance: it makes me stop and pay attention, it’s a kind of marker each day of like, “Oh, where am I?” Most of the time most of us don’t stop to do this. The idea of not doing anything is radical. So the practice is a practice of not doing—of just watching.

I love that. “The idea of doing nothing is radical”—that really seems to tie in to the concept of balance as a calibration act.
That’s exactly right. Balance is a verb, and mindfulness makes it more doable.

Sarah Perlman is meQuilibrium’s Associate Content Manager and Cup of Calm Editor.