What makes for a good life? Such a simple question, yet we don't have great answers. Most of us try to figure it out as we go along, and many end up feeling like they never got to the bottom of it.
Shouldn't something so important be approached with more scientific rigor? In 1938, Harvard researchers began a study to fill this gap. Since then, they’ve followed hundreds of people over the course of their lives, hoping to identify which factors are key to long-term satisfaction.
Eighty-five years later, the Harvard Study of Adult Development is still going. And today, its directors, the psychiatrists Bob Waldinger and Marc Shulz, have published a book that pulls together the study’s most important findings. It’s called The Good Life: Lessons from the World’s Longest Scientific Study of Happiness.
In this podcast episode, I talked with Dr. Waldinger about life lessons that we can mine from the Harvard study and his new book.
More background on the study
Back in the 1930s, the research began with 724 people. Some were first-year Harvard students paying full tuition, others were freshmen who needed financial help, and the rest were 14-year-old boys from inner city Boston – white males only. Fortunately, the study team realized the error of their ways and expanded their sample to include the wives and daughters of the first participants. And Waldinger’s book focuses on the Harvard study findings that can be corroborated by evidence from additional research on the lives of people of different races and other minorities.
The study now includes over 1,300 relatives of the original participants, spanning three generations. Every two years, the participants have sent the researchers a filled-out questionnaire, reporting how their lives are going. At five-year intervals, the research team takes a peek their health records and, every 15 years, the psychologists meet their subjects in-person to check out their appearance and behavior.
But they don’t stop there. No, the researchers factor in multiple blood samples, DNA, images from body scans, and even the donated brains of 25 participants.
Robert Waldinger, director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development.
Dr. Waldinger is Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, in addition to being Director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development. He got his M.D. from Harvard Medical School and has published numerous scientific papers he’s a practicing psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, he teaches Harvard medical students, and since that is clearly not enough to keep him busy, he’s also a Zen priest.
His book is a must-read if you’re looking for scientific evidence on how to design your life for more satisfaction so someday in the future you can look back on it without regret, and this episode was an amazing conversation in which Dr. Waldinger breaks down many of the cliches about the good life, making his advice real and tangible. We also get into what he calls “side-by-side” relationships, personality traits for the good life, and the downsides of being too strict about work-life balance.
- Bob Waldinger
- Waldinger's book, The Good Life: Lessons from the World's Longest Scientific Study of Happiness
- The Harvard Study of Adult Development
- Waldinger's Ted Talk
- Gallup report finding that people with good friends at work have higher engagement with their jobs
- The link between relationships and well-being
- Those with social connections live longer
This article originally appeared in One Health/One Planet, a single-issue magazine that explores how climate change and other environmental shifts are increasing vulnerabilities to infectious diseases by land and by sea. The magazine probes how scientists are making progress with leaders in other fields toward solutions that embrace diverse perspectives and the interconnectedness of all lifeforms and the planet.
On July 30, 1999, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published a report comparing data on the control of infectious disease from the beginning of the 20th century to the end. The data showed that deaths from infectious diseases declined markedly. In the early 1900s, pneumonia, tuberculosis and diarrheal diseases were the three leading killers, accounting for one-third of total deaths in the U.S.—with 40 percent being children under five.
Mass vaccinations, the discovery of antibiotics and overall sanitation and hygiene measures eventually eradicated smallpox, beat down polio, cured cholera, nearly rid the world of tuberculosis and extended the U.S. life expectancy by 25 years. By 1997, there was a shift in population health in the U.S. such that cancer, diabetes and heart disease were now the leading causes of death.The control of infectious diseases is considered to be one of the “10 Great Public Health Achievements.” Yet on the brink of the 21st century, new trouble was already brewing. Hospitals were seeing periodic cases of antibiotic-resistant infections. Novel viruses, or those that previously didn’t afflict humans, began to emerge, causing outbreaks of West Nile, SARS, MERS or swine flu.
In the years that followed, tuberculosis made a comeback, at least in certain parts of the world. What we didn’t take into account was the very concept of evolution: as we built better protections, our enemies eventually boosted their attacking prowess, so soon enough we found ourselves on the defensive once again.
At the same time, new, previously unknown or extremely rare disorders began to rise, such as autoimmune or genetic conditions. Two decades later, scientists began thinking about health differently—not as a static achievement guaranteed to last, but as something dynamic and constantly changing—and sometimes, for the worse.
What emerged since then is a different paradigm that makes our interactions with the microbial world more like a biological chess match, says Victoria McGovern, a biochemist and program officer for the Burroughs Wellcome Fund’s Infectious Disease and Population Sciences Program. In this chess game, humans may make a clever strategic move, which could involve creating a new vaccine or a potent antibiotic, but that advantage is fleeting. At some point, the organisms we are up against could respond with a move of their own—such as developing resistance to medication or genetic mutations that attack our bodies. Simply eradicating the “opponent,” or the pathogenic microbes, as efficiently as possible isn’t enough to keep humans healthy long-term.
Instead, scientists should focus on studying the complexity of interactions between humans and their pathogens. “We need to better understand the lifestyles of things that afflict us,” McGovern says. “The solutions are going to be in understanding various parts of their biology so we can influence how they behave around our systems.”
Genetics and cell biology, combined with imaging techniques that allow one to see tissues and individual cells in actions, will enable scientists to define and quantify what it means to be healthy at the molecular level.
What is being proposed will require a pivot to basic biology and other disciplines that have suffered from lack of research funding in recent years. Yet, according to McGovern, the research teams of funded proposals are answering bigger questions. “We look for people exploring questions about hosts and pathogens, and what happens when they touch, but we’re also looking for people with big ideas,” she says. For example, if one specific infection causes a chain of pathological events in the body, can other infections cause them too? And if we find a way to break that chain for one pathogen, can we play the same trick on another? “We really want to see people thinking of not just one experiment but about big implications of their work,” McGovern says.
Jonah Cool, a cell biologist, geneticist and science officer at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, says that it’s necessary to define what constitutes a healthy organism and how it overcomes infections or environmental assaults, such as pollution from forest fires or toxins from industrial smokestacks. An organism that catches a disease isn’t necessarily an unhealthy one, as long as it fights it off successfully—an ability that arises from the complex interplay of its genes, the immune system, age, stress levels and other factors. Modern science allows many of these factors to be measured, recorded and compared. “We need a data-driven, deep-phenotyping approach to defining healthy biological systems and their responses to insults—which can be infectious disease or environmental exposures—and their ability to navigate their way through that space,” Cool says.
Genetics and cell biology, combined with imaging techniques that allow one to see tissues and individual cells in actions, will enable scientists to define and quantify what it means to be healthy at the molecular level. “As a geneticist and cell biologist, I believe in all these molecular underpinnings and how they arise in phenotypic differences in cells, genes, proteins—and how their combinations form complex cellular states,” Cool says.
Julie Graves, a physician, public health consultant, former adjunct professor of management, policy and community health at the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston, stresses the necessity of nutritious diets. According to the Rockefeller Food Initiative, “poor diet is the leading risk factor for disease, disability and premature death in the majority of countries around the world.” Adequate nutrition is critical for maintaining human health and life. Yet, Western diets are often low in essential nutrients, high in calories and heavy on processed foods. Overconsumption of these foods has contributed to high rates of obesity and chronic disease in the U.S. In fact, more than half of American adults have at least one chronic disease, and 27 percent have more than one—which increases vulnerability to COVID-19 infections, according to the 2018 National Health Interview Survey.
Further, the contamination of our food supply with various agricultural and industrial toxins—petrochemicals, pesticides, PFAS and others—has implications for morbidity, mortality, and overall quality of life. “These chemicals are insidiously in everything, including our bodies,” Graves says—and they are interfering with our normal biological functions. “We need to stop how we manufacture food,” she adds, and rid our sustenance of these contaminants.
According to the Humane Society of the United States, factory farms result in nearly 40 percent of emissions of methane. Concentrated animal feeding operations or CAFOs may serve as breeding grounds for pandemics, scientists warn, so humans should research better ways to raise and treat livestock. Diego Rose, a professor of food and nutrition policy at Tulane University School of Public Health & Tropical Medicine, and his colleagues found that “20 percent of Americans’ diets account for about 45 percent of the environmental impacts [that come from food].” A subsequent study explored the impacts of specific foods and found that substituting beef for chicken lowers an individual’s carbon footprint by nearly 50 percent, with water usage decreased by 30 percent. Notably, however, eating too much red meat has been associated with a variety of illnesses.
In some communities, the option to swap food types is limited or impossible. For example, “many populations live in relative food deserts where there’s not a local grocery store that has any fresh produce,” says Louis Muglia, the president and CEO of Burroughs Wellcome. Individuals in these communities suffer from an insufficient intake of beneficial macronutrients, and they’re “probably being exposed to phenols and other toxins that are in the packaging.” An equitable, sustainable and nutritious food supply will be vital to humanity’s wellbeing in the era of climate change, unpredictable weather and spillover events.
A recent report by See Change Institute and the Climate Mental Health Network showed that people who are experiencing socioeconomic inequalities, including many people of color, contribute the least to climate change, yet they are impacted the most. For example, people in low-income communities are disproportionately exposed to vehicle emissions, Muglia says. Through its Climate Change and Human Health Seed Grants program, Burroughs Wellcome funds research that aims to understand how various factors related to climate change and environmental chemicals contribute to premature births, associated with health vulnerabilities over the course of a person’s life—and map such hot spots.
“It’s very complex, the combinations of socio-economic environment, race, ethnicity and environmental exposure, whether that’s heat or toxic chemicals,” Muglia explains. “Disentangling those things really requires a very sophisticated, multidisciplinary team. That’s what we’ve put together to describe where these hotspots are and see how they correlate with different toxin exposure levels.”
In addition to mapping the risks, researchers are developing novel therapeutics that will be crucial to our armor arsenal, but we will have to be smarter at designing and using them. We will need more potent, better-working monoclonal antibodies. Instead of directly attacking a pathogen, we may have to learn to stimulate the immune system—training it to fight the disease-causing microbes on its own. And rather than indiscriminately killing all bacteria with broad-scope drugs, we would need more targeted medications. “Instead of wiping out the entire gut flora, we will need to come up with ways that kill harmful bacteria but not healthy ones,” Graves says. Training our immune systems to recognize and react to pathogens by way of vaccination will keep us ahead of our biological opponents, too. “Continued development of vaccines against infectious diseases is critical,” says Graves.With all of the unpredictable events that lie ahead, it is difficult to foresee what achievements in public health will be reported at the end of the 21st century. Yet, technological advances, better modeling and pursuing bigger questions in science, along with education and working closely with communities will help overcome the challenges. The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative displays an optimistic message on its website: “Is it possible to cure, prevent, or manage all diseases by the end of this century? We think so.” Cool shares the view of his employer—and believes that science can get us there. Just give it some time and a chance. “It’s a big, bold statement,” he says, “but the end of the century is a long way away.”
Ashley O’Connor, who was biologically male at birth but identifies as female, decided to compete in badminton as a girl during her senior year of high school in Downers Grove, Illinois. There was no team for boys, and a female friend and badminton player “practically bullied me into joining” the girls’ team. O’Connor, who is 18 and taking hormone replacement therapy for her gender transition, recalled that “it was easily one of the best decisions I have ever made.”
She believes there are many reasons why it’s important for transgender people to have the option of playing sports on the team of their choice. “It provides a sense of community,” said O’Connor, now a first-year student concentrating in psychology at the College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn, Illinois.
“It’s a great way to get a workout, which is good for physical and mental health,” she added. She also enjoyed the opportunity to be competitive, learn about her strengths and weaknesses, and just be normal. “Trans people have friends and trans people want to play sports with their friends, especially in adolescence,” she said.
However, in 18 states, many of which are politically conservative, laws prohibit transgender students from participating in sports consistent with their gender identity, according to the Movement Advancement Project, an independent, nonprofit think tank based in Boulder, Colo., that focuses on the rights of LGBTQ people. The first ban was passed in Idaho in 2020, although federal district judges have halted this legislation and a similar law in West Virginia from taking effect.
Proponents of the bans caution that transgender females would have an unfair biological advantage in competitive school sports with other girls or women as a result of being born as stronger males, potentially usurping the athletic accomplishments of other athletes.
“The future of women’s sports is at risk, and the equal rights of female athletes is being infringed,” said Penny Nance, CEO and president of Concerned Women for America, a legislative action committee in D.C. that seeks to impact culture to promote religious values.
“As the tidal wave of gender activism consumes sports from the Olympics on down, a backlash is being felt as parents are furious about the disregard for their daughters who have worked very hard to achieve success as athletes,” Nance added. “Former athletes, whose records are being shattered, are demanding answers.”
Meanwhile, opponents of the bans contend that they bar transgender athletes from playing sports with friends and learning the value of teamwork and other life lessons. These laws target transgender girls most often in kindergarten through high school but sometimes in college as well. Many local schools and state athletic associations already have their own guidelines “to both protect transgender people and ensure a level playing field for all athletes,” according to the Movement Advancement Project’s website. But statewide bans take precedence over these policies.
"It’s easy to sympathize on some level with arguments on both sides, and it’s likely going to be impossible to make everyone happy,” said Liz Joy, a past president of the American College of Sports Medicine.
In January, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), based in Indianapolis, tried to sort out the controversy by implementing a new policy. It requires transgender students participating in female sports to prove that they’ve been taking treatments to suppress testosterone for at least one year before competition, as well as demonstrating that their testosterone level is sufficiently low, depending on the sport, through a blood test.
Then, in August, the NCAA clarified that these athletes also must take another blood test six months after their season has started that shows their testosterone levels aren’t too high. Additional guidelines will take effect next August.
Even with these requirements, “there is no plan that is going to be considered equitable and fair to all,” said Bradley Anawalt, an endocrinologist at the University of Washington School of Medicine. Biologically, he noted, there is still some evidence that a transgender female who initiates hormone therapy with estrogen and drops her testosterone to very low levels may have some advantage over other females, based on characteristics such as hand and foot size, height and perhaps strength.
Liz Joy, a past president of the American College of Sports Medicine, agrees that allowing transgender athletes to compete on teams of their self-identifying gender poses challenges. “It’s easy to sympathize on some level with arguments on both sides, and it’s likely going to be impossible to make everyone happy,” said Joy, a physician and senior medical director of wellness and nutrition at Intermountain Healthcare in Salt Lake City, Utah. While advocating for inclusion, she added that “sport was incredibly important in my life. I just want everyone to be able to benefit from it.”
One solution may be to allow transgender youth to play sports in a way that aligns with their gender identity until a certain age and before an elite level. “There are minimal or no potential financial stakes for most youth sports before age 13 or 14, and you do not have a lot of separation in athlete performance between most boys and girls until about age 13,” said Anwalt, who was a reviewer of the Endocrine Society’s national guidelines on transgender care.
Myron Genel, a professor emeritus and former chief of pediatric endocrinology at Yale School of Medicine, said it’s difficult to argue that height gives transgender females an edge because in some sports tall women already dominate over their shorter counterparts.
He added that the decision to allow transgender females to compete with other girls or women could hinge on when athletes began taking testosterone blockers. “If the process of conversion from male to female has been undertaken in the early stages of puberty, from my perspective, they have very little unique advantage,” said Genel, who advised the International Olympic Committee (IOC), based in Switzerland, on testosterone limits for transgender athletes.
Because young athletes’ bodies are still developing, “the differences in natural abilities are so massive that they would overwhelm any advantage a transgender athlete might have,” said Thomas H. Murray, president emeritus of The Hastings Center, a pioneering bioethics research institute in Garrison, New York, and author of the book “Good Sport,” which focuses on the ethics and values in the Olympics and other competitions.
“There’s no good reason to limit the participation of transgender athletes in the sports where male athletes don’t have an advantage over women,” such as sailing, archery and shooting events, Murray said. “The burden of proof rests on those who want to restrict participation by transgender athletes. They must show that in this sport, at this level of competition, transgender athletes have a conspicuous advantage.”
Last year, the IOC issued a new framework emphasizing that the Olympic rules related to transgender participation should be specific to each sport. “This is an evolving topic and there has been—as it will continue to be—new research coming out and new developments informing our approach,” and there’s currently no consensus on how testosterone affects performance across all sports, an IOC spokesperson told Leaps.org.
Many of the new laws prohibiting transgender people from competing in sports consistent with their gender identity specifically apply to transgender females. Yet, some experts say the issue also affects transgender males, nonbinary and intersex athletes.
“There has been quite a bit of attention paid to transgender females and their participation in biological female sports and almost minimal focus on transgender male competition in male sports or in any sports,” said Katherine Drabiak, associate professor of public health law and medical ethics at University of South Florida in Tampa. In fact, “transgender men, because they were born female, would be at a disadvantage of having less lean body mass, less strength and less muscular area as a general category compared to a biological male.”
While discussing transgender students’ participation in sports, it’s important to call attention to the toll that anti-transgender legislation can take on these young people’s well-being, said Jonah DeChants, a research scientist at The Trevor Project, a suicide prevention and mental health organization for LGBTQ youth. Recent polling found that 85 percent of transgender and nonbinary youth said that debates around anti-transgender laws had a negative impact on their mental health.
“The reality is simple: Most transgender girls want to play sports for the same reasons as any student—to benefit their health, to have fun, and to build connection with friends,” DeChants said. According to a new peer-reviewed qualitative study by researchers at The Trevor Project, many trans girls who participated in sports experienced harassment and stigma based on their gender identity, which can contribute to poor mental health outcomes and suicide risk.
In addition to badminton, O'Connor played other sports such as volleyball, and she plans to become an assistant coach or manager of her old high school's badminton team.
However, DeChants added, research also shows that young people who reported living in an accepting community, had access to LGBTQ-affirming spaces, or had social support from family and friends reported significantly lower rates of attempting suicide in the past year. “We urge coaches, educators and school administrators to seek LGBTQ-cultural competency training, implement zero tolerance policies for anti-trans bullying, and create safe, affirming environments for all transgender students on and off the field,” DeChants said.
O’Connor said her experiences on the athletic scene have been mostly positive. The politics of her community lean somewhat liberal, and she thinks it’s probably more supportive than some other areas of the country, though she noted the local library has received threats for hosting LGBTQ events. In addition to badminton, she also played baseball, lacrosse, volleyball, basketball and hockey. In the spring, she plans to become an assistant coach or manager for the girls’ badminton team at her old high school.
“When I played badminton, I never got any direct backlash from any coaches, competitors or teammates,” she said. “I had a few other teammates that identified as trans or nonbinary, [and] nearly all of the people I ever interacted with were super pleasant and treated me like any other normal person.” She added that transgender athletes “have aspirations. We have wants and needs. We have dreams. And at the end of the day, we just want to live our lives and be happy like everyone else.”