Dr. Robert Waldinger on the Science of Happiness and What Makes a Good Life

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Katie: Hello, and welcome to the “Wellness Mama Podcast.” I’m Katie, from wellnessmama.com, and this episode is all about the science of happiness and what actually makes a good life based on decades and decades of research. I’m here with Dr. Robert Waldinger, who is a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, the director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development at Massachusetts General Hospital, and co-founder of the Lifespan Research Foundation. He is a practicing psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, and he directs a psychotherapy teaching program for Harvard psychiatry residents. He’s also a Zen master who teaches meditation in New England and around the world and considered one of the world’s foremost experts on this topic.
I mentioned the Harvard Study of Adult Development, which we talk about in depth today, but it’s really fascinating because it looks at what actually correlates to health and happiness over the long term. They followed people since 1938 and are now following their children to really delve into this data, and I think some of the takeaways might surprise you. In this episode, we talk about how loneliness increases your risk of death as much or more as obesity or smoking. How close to half of your waking moments are spent thinking about something other than what you’re actually doing, and how… The data shows very clearly that a good life is not found by providing ourselves with just ease and lack of discomfort, but rather it arises from the act of facing inevitable challenges and fully inhabiting these moments in our lives.
So, in this episode, we cover how he became a Zen master and now teaches meditation around the world. We talk about the science of meditation and why it’s so beneficial, and then we really delve into the Harvard Study of Adult Development, which as I said is the longest study on the same group of people. It’s been going on since 1938. We talk about a lot of the key takeaways from this extremely long study, some of which might surprise you. We talk about the surprising key to happiness and why human connection and relationships might be the most important factor. We talk through helpful questions for checking in on your own relationships, how childhood experiences shape mental health later in life, and what children actually need to feel safe and secure early in life. The answer might surprise you.
We talk about what the data shows about things that extend lifespan and things that shorten it. Some you’ll be very aware of and some might surprise you. We talk about why happiness is not something we can achieve past meeting our basic human needs, and what actually does help build happiness and well-being in the long term. We talk about how we can use our feelings as signals, but also exercise choice in how we respond, some rules of thumb when it comes to relationships, and increasing social fitness in our own lives, why our kids need to see us model prioritizing relationships and taking care of ourselves, what empathetic accuracy is. He explains the wiser method for handling emotionally challenging situations. He talks about the best investment you can make in your own well-being, and then health and lifestyle trends that stood out from the huge amount of data in this study.
So, I know I learned a lot in this. I have read some of his work in his studies. He also has a really fascinating TED Talk, one of the most popular TED Talks, which I will link to in the show notes as well at wellnessmama.fm, along with his book. But he is a wealth of information. We got to go deep on the data today and really give some helpful, practical key takeaways that you can implement easily in your own life, even if you are busy. So, without further ado, let’s join Robert Waldinger. Dr. Waldinger, welcome, and thanks so much for being here.
Dr. Waldinger: It’s great to be here. Thanks for having me.
Katie: I am so excited for our conversation and to get to really dig into your research with you and some key takeaways, especially for all the moms and parents listening. But before we get to go deep on the science of a good life and happiness, I have a note from your bio that you are a Zen master and that you teach meditation as well. And meditation is one of the most recurring recommendations on this podcast from high-achieving people as one of the secrets to their happiness and success. I would love to hear how you became a Zen master and maybe just a little bit about your meditation style.
Dr. Waldinger: Sure. I didn’t mean to become a Zen master, which is really just a Zen teacher, I’ve been authorized to teach by my teacher. It’s that I became fascinated by meditation. And when I tried it, I found that it was really helpful for me. It really settled me down and it gave me a different perspective on my life and myself. So, I just kept doing it. And I kept sitting with a Zen group, and I found a teacher and studied Zen for now 17 years, and eventually was authorized to teach. But the most important thing for me is still the practice. I meditate every day.
Katie: That’s wonderful. That’s the thing that took me, I think, a solid decade to actually develop the habit of doing. And I think, for a lot of years, I had all these ideas of what meditation was supposed to be and thought I was supposed to think of nothing and kept sort of running into walls doing it in ways that weren’t working. And now that I’ve implemented it, it is so life-changing.
Dr. Waldinger: You know, that happened to me too. So, I was interested in meditation long before I started meditating regularly. And I would try it. And every time I got stressed or busy, I would stop. And that’s just when you wanna keep going. And someone said to me, “If you can find a group to sit with and you can find a teacher to talk to regularly, you will find that you’re able to have your own regular meditation practice.” And that turns out to be what happened for me. I found a group that I sit with and a teacher.
Katie: And I’m guessing there might be some overlap here into actually your research world. But you were involved in the Harvard Study on Adult Development. What I would love for you to explain for anyone who hasn’t heard of that, what it is and what you guys looked at, and then maybe also walk us through some of those key takeaways or important foundational points for living a good life because we’re gonna get to go deep on several of these today.
Dr. Waldinger: Sure. So, the Harvard Study of Adult Development, that’s its official name. And as far as we know, it’s the longest study of the same people that’s ever been done. It started in 1938, and it followed the same people throughout their entire adult lives, from the time they were teenagers all the way into old age. Almost all of them have passed away now, but their children are part of the study. Their children are now in their 50s and 60s, they’re all baby boomers. And so we’ve been studying these two generations of lives. And what’s so unique and wonderful about it is that we study the same people over and over again. So, we don’t just take a snapshot, the way most research does, and say, “Well, what’s happening right now with a group of people?” We study them over and over again.
Katie: I bet that was fascinating to have access to that kind of long-term data like that. And it seems like happiness is one of those areas where perhaps we have a lot of misconceptions. And even our intuition can maybe often be wrong about the things that will make us happy. Like I know I’ve learned the hard way in the past of thinking some kind of material thing was gonna make me happy, or that if only I lost weight, then I was gonna be happy. And it turns out those were not the case, at least for me. So, in looking at all of this data over the long term, what did you find actually is correlated with happiness in the long term?
Dr. Waldinger: Well, and that’s one of our key takeaways that you had asked about. That what we found was that it was our relationships that actually not only make us happier but keep us healthier as we get older. So, what we found is that the people who had warmer connections with other people were the people who certainly were happier, but they also stayed healthier. They didn’t develop the diseases of aging as soon if they did at all. So, like type 2 diabetes, and heart disease, and arthritis, and they lived longer lives. And we didn’t even believe that at first because, how could your relationships actually get into your body and change your body physiology, how could that possibly work? But we’ve been studying that for the last 10 or more years now, and really learning a lot about how relationships affect our physical health.
Katie: That’s so fascinating to me. And actually, this is where I first learned about this, I believe, was through this study and reading about it, that lack of that human connection, or not enough quality human connection, or loneliness is actually one of the worst things for our physical health right up there with smoking even which most people are now well aware is not great for your health. I’m curious, did you guys figure out a metric for measuring connection and relationships? Because I think perhaps this is the thing, maybe even in our own lives, it might be hard to really dial in if we have good connection in relationships. Are there metrics to look for that you guys looked at? Or what did you look at from that when you were analyzing?
Dr. Waldinger: We’ve looked at it a bunch of different ways. So, we got people’s own reports of how they felt about the different relationships they have in their life. We got other people to talk about what they’re like as a friend or a relative. We had them fill out questionnaires, we gave them challenges to respond to. So, we did it a whole bunch of different ways. But one of the ways that people can check in on their own relationships is to ask themselves, is this relationship nourishing to me? Is it energizing? Do my spirits lift? Do I feel better when I’m with this person, when I talk with this person? Is this relationship draining? And if it’s draining, depleting, are there ways I could work on it to make it better? And it’s certainly the case that all relationships have challenges. Like no relationship is always smooth, and that’s to be expected. So, the idea is, figure out which relationships are really important to you and work through the hard times in those relationships to make them more nourishing, more energizing.
Katie: And the other thing I find so unique about this study, because it was such a long-term study, is that you guys were probably able to look at early childhood experiences and then correlate them to midlife and later on in life, and maybe any recurring effects that they had that people noticed or even maybe ones that people didn’t necessarily notice. And as a parent, and most of the people listening are parents, this is so fascinating to me because I always ask these questions around, you know, all these lessons I learned as an adult, how could I shorten that for my kids or improve that foundation for my kids? So, I’d love to hear anything you guys found out about childhood experiences and how they correlate later in life, especially anything that we as parents could take away from that and then help our children by implementing earlier in life.
Dr. Waldinger: Well, the most important thing we learn about childhood experience is that every child needs to feel securely connected with at least one adult, to feel like one adult is a safe haven, that that person will help you if you need help, that that person will be there reliably. One of the things we find is that childhoods that have a lot of instability in them, a lot of chaos in the family, a lot of coming and going of the most important people in a child’s life, those are the most difficult childhoods for kids. That if kids have some measure of predictability and some measure of safety with at least one adult, it goes a long way to building a solid, secure foundation. And that doesn’t mean childhoods have to be perfect by any means. It doesn’t mean parenting has to be perfect at all. It means being the good enough parent, the good enough family, the stable enough family for your children.
Katie: Well, that’s probably really encouraging. And I noticed, to me, and probably to a lot of the parents listening as well is that we don’t have to be perfect, but just… Like I tell my kids every day that I love you unconditionally, there’s nothing you ever have to do to earn it, nor is there anything you could ever do that will diminish that. But I would guess, for single parents listening as well, it’s good to know, it’s even just one really stable trusting relationship is enough to offer that security, which is really exciting to hear.
Dr. Waldinger: Yes, yes. And it doesn’t need to be any certain kind of family. It could be a stable, secure relationship with a grandmother, or an uncle, or even a teacher, or a clergy person, you know, just somebody, if it’s a solid person who’s with you. And over time, that’s what each child needs.
Katie: And that’s also helpful to hear as a parent that it’s not about having that perfect childhood that’s free from bumps or challenges. In fact, I would guess the opposite may actually be true. This is something I’ve thought through as a parent a lot is I know I can look back on my life and realize that some of my biggest joys and achievements in life have actually come from working through some of my toughest times. And we realize that in our own lives, yet it’s hard to see our children go through struggles. But it sounds like, from the takeaways, this is something you guys identified as well is that a good life and a happy life doesn’t come from necessarily by any means an easy life, but more from it sounds like the mindset in working through challenges.
Dr. Waldinger: That’s exactly right. And in fact, there’s good research to show this, that, in fact, we grow from challenges. So, there’s a difference between challenges that are too big that overwhelm us and challenges that are manageable. So, if you think about it, the problem with trying to protect your child from everything is that then your child doesn’t learn to manage on his or her own, doesn’t learn to deal with the challenge of a difficult test or a challenging relationship. But if your child has your support and your guidance about how to make it through and then your child makes it through on their own, that’s very empowering. So, it’s really finding the right balance, trying to protect your children from things that are overwhelming but let them face the things that they can learn to handle.
Katie: Any practical tips? I know that men and women are part of the study, but you would recommend for parents in actually achieving that. Like, for instance, I try to focus on with my kids calling out when they have a great effort at something rather than, you know, I’ve heard don’t tell your kids they’re smart, tell them, “Wow, you worked really hard on that, you must feel really proud of yourself.” And letting those things sort of come internally. And also when they go through hard things, not diminishing that or just saying, “Oh, it’s okay, it’s okay.” But giving them the tools to verbally and emotionally identify their emotions and then work through that while giving them that validation. Like, “I know that you can get through this and also I’m right here with you and we’re gonna get through this.”
Dr. Waldinger: That’s really important, to give them the tools and also to show them that you are confident. And even confident that if something doesn’t work out, they’ll pick themselves up and manage and go on, and, you know, that failure is also possible and that we can recover and even learn from times of failure. It’s that message. And I think what you just said, that message that, “I love you no matter what. And I don’t love you for what you achieve, I just love you because you’re you.” That that’s really important, that every child needs to feel lovable for who they are, not for how they perform, for example.
Katie: I love that. Definitely a very helpful tool for parents. I’m glad we got to delve into that. Another thing that I would guess is unique about a study this long is that you actually probably got to look at correlative data among what actually increases lifespan or what might shorten lifespan. And it seems like this is an area where people love to have theories, and it’s often used in headlines about things that are gonna increase lifespan or shorten lifespan. And so I’m really curious if there were any emerging patterns that really stood out to you when it comes to this, especially since you mentioned loneliness being so harmful. This has actually been my theory for a long time when it comes to blue zones because everyone tries to look at blue zones and go, “Oh, it’s because they eat a Mediterranean diet, or because they eat fish, or because they drink red wine.” And at least from my non-research-backed overview of this, I’m like, the one thing they actually all have in common is a lot of human connection and spending a whole lot of time with people they love no matter what they’re eating or what type of wine they are or not drinking. But I’m curious when it comes to… Actually, what correlates in the data with extended lifespan and/or shortened lifespan?
Dr. Waldinger: Well, actually, both of the things you mentioned correlate. So, one is taking care of your health. That it turns out it’s super important, you know, to eat well, to get regular exercise, not to use tobacco, not to be addicted to alcohol or drugs. Those are really important. But in addition, there’s this human connection. And that gives me a chance to say a little bit about how we think it works because, you know, in these blue zones where you have like, for example in a village, some villages assign kids little friend groups and they’re gonna be your friend group for life from the time you’re five. And you see these 90-year-olds still with their friend group in these villages and this sense that someone has your back, how does that work? So, what we’ve learned from the research is that it seems to have something to do with stress and relieving stress. That, if you think about it, isolation is stressful.
So, let’s say you have a really upsetting day, something bad happens or you have a really terrible encounter with somebody and you can feel your body get revved up, you can feel your heart rate go up and you just feel differently physically. And then if you go home at the end of the day and there’s somebody you can talk to either at home or someone you can call who’s a good listener, who will be there for you and understand you’ve been through a hard time, you can literally feel your body calm down as you talk to that person. And what we think happens is that good relationships are stress regulators, that they help our bodies come back to their natural equilibrium. That when we have a bad time or a challenging time, our bodies move into what we call the fight or flight response. And that’s fine for like running away from a bear or something, but then we want our bodies to come back to baseline. Well, what if you go home and there’s nobody in your life you can talk to about stressful things, you don’t have that person who can help you calm down? So that’s where we think that relationships become regulators of our stressful experiences.
Katie: That’s so fascinating. And I would guess that that is also gonna springboard into this next question, and there’s gonna be a tie-in here as well. But I think often people have a story in their head about happiness being tied to something that we can achieve. And I know, like I said, I had this story of, “Oh, if only I lost weight, then I would be happy.” Or, “If only finances felt more stable, then I would be happy.” And I know, at least in those instances, for me, this was very much not the case and that happiness was a much more internal process in my thinking and a lot of things like that. But I’m curious, is happiness something we can “achieve” in such an achievement-based society? Or is it something different and we’re thinking about it the wrong way?
Dr. Waldinger: Well, you’re so right in what you discovered, which is that, you know, it’s not material things. Once you have your basic needs met, so happiness does… You know, having food, and shelter, and access to healthcare, yes, of course. But that beyond that, happiness doesn’t increase when we make more money. We know this from good research. So, then what is it? Well, we can build a kind of safety net for ourselves of well-being usually in our connections with other people so that even when you go through hard times, when your finances are unstable, you’ve got people who will watch your back, who will loan you their car when you need it, who will…whatever it might be, right? So, you can build a kind of foundation of well-being that we think of as a safety net. The other thing that’s probably worth naming is that happiness is really a kind of momentary feeling. Like I’m happy some times of the day, like I’m happy right now talking to you, but some times of the day, I’m not so happy, I might feel blah, or I might feel sad. And that happiness comes and goes, but that well-being, that kind of sense of life is okay and I’m living a life that means something to me, that kind of well-being is something that’s more stable. And so that’s what we want to aim to build, not so much the momentary happiness that is always gonna come and go.
Katie: That’s a great point, and it makes me wonder how much of this is actually under our control and it’s something we can sort of cultivate in our thought patterns and in our habits. Because I look at, especially my younger children and I work through trying to help them separate. Like they’ll often make statements, like, “My sibling made me mad, so then I did this.” Or “this made me happy.” And I’m trying to help them learn to separate those things that are like temporary feelings that can come and go versus their choices of certainly their actions but also their choices of their interstate, which, of course, easier said than done. As adults, we struggle with emotional regulation at times too. But I am curious from the data, how much of this is under our control? And if we are able to cultivate these things, what can we do to cultivate maybe better internal dialogue that correlates with that sense of well-being over time?
Dr. Waldinger: Yeah. Well, you’re raising an interesting point, which is that feelings really aren’t under our control much of the time. In other words, you feel what you feel. The real challenge is, how do I respond to those feelings? So, when your child says, “You know, my sibling made me mad.” Okay, then you help kids learn, okay, anger comes up, being mad happens to all of us. Now the question is, how do you respond? How do you use that anger in ways that are helpful and not hurtful? Right? And similarly, we can learn to use our feelings as signals, as useful signals, but then have more and more choice about how we use those signals, right? So, I will often, like, I’ll get angry at something my wife says, and then I’ll realize, “Okay, this just isn’t important.” So I find ways to say, “Okay, what is it that’s making me angry? And is this something I can let go? Is this something I should speak about? And if so, can I speak about it when I’m not angry anymore so that I don’t inject a lot more anger into it than I need to?” So, there are a lot of ways, as you know and as you try to help your kids do, there are ways of using our feelings as very valid signals but then getting better and better at letting our feelings be our guides and not our masters.
Katie: I like that phrase, letting them be our guides but not our masters. And a common thread that I keep hearing from you throughout this interview is the importance of those relationships and social connection. I believe in your TED Talk, which I’ll link to you use maybe the term social fitness or I’ve read that in your work somewhere, I’d love any tips you have for people in increasing that, especially after the last couple of years. I know statistically, people have been more isolated, the rates of loneliness are on the rise along with rates of things like depression and anxiety. Are there any things that stood out to you from this study on how we can increase our social fitness and our connection with others, especially in a world that’s changed so much in the last few years?
Dr. Waldinger: Yes, I’m so glad you raised that, that what we’ve learned is that relationships don’t just take care of themselves. Like I used to think, “Oh, my good friends from childhood or my good friends from college, they’re always gonna be there. They’re always gonna be my friends.” And what we find is that actually, relationships need tending, they need care. Almost like our bodies need care. So, you know, if you think about it, you go to the gym or you go for a good invigorating walk, you don’t come home and say, “I’m done now. I don’t have to do anything else physically active the rest of my life because I’m all done.” Right? And what we’re finding is that it’s the same with relationships that they need ongoing care. And so what I would love to convey to all of your audience is that we can make choices every day and every week about how we’re gonna stay fit socially.
In other words, how are we gonna nurture those relationships? So that person who you love to be with but you just don’t find yourselves getting together very often, that’s a person to reach out to and to be more active to say, “Let’s do something every week or at least every month.” Or that person you’ve lost touch with and you really miss, right? Or that person we’ve had difficulty with, and so you’ve just kind of gotten estranged. Maybe you could reach out to that person again and just send out a little feeler saying, “I’d love to reconnect.” That if we are active in those ways, often we build those connections and we build that safety net that we’ve been talking about now.
Katie: That’s such great encouragement and especially speaking to any moms listening, I know from my experience, that motherhood is a tough phase of life to do that because you are so in the trenches hands-on with your own kids. And I feel like, in many ways, it also is perhaps the most important time in life to have that support and to have those relationships, hopefully with your partner, but also I found at least with other women and having a good support group like that. But I think something you said is very key, which is often we need to be the initiators because in busy times of life, if we just wait for someone else to reach out, it may never happen. So, I encourage women often, start a mom’s night once a week, once a month, whenever it is, and make it a priority. Also, make a date night with your partner a priority, but build in on the schedule or they won’t happen, especially when you have young kids.
Dr. Waldinger: Absolutely. And it doesn’t have to be a big deal. It could be going for a walk, you know, especially during the pandemic, you know, it could be low cost but physically active and connecting where you go for a walk with someone or a group of people who you don’t get to catch up with enough and you get to catch up on your walk. And so there are all kinds of things you can do as you say. And I guess one rule of thumb that I’ve used now sometimes is if I’m wondering whether to reach out, if the thought occurs to me, I do it rather than wondering or saying, “Well, no, that person might not want to hear from me or they’re probably too busy, or they’ve got their own kids to worry about,” whatever my story might be that when if the thought occurs to me, I get myself over the hump and I reach out and say, “Hey, let’s connect.”
Katie: I love that. I know two things that have been helpful for me personally in the motherhood phase of life is, one, realizing I combed through a lot of data and had some early childhood experts on. I think a lot of moms struggle with feeling like we’re supposed to be 100% present for our kids all the time in order for them to be happy and healthy. And it turns out the data says they really only need 10 to 20 minutes of our completely focused undistracted attention per day doing something they wanna do without our phones. But it’s not hours and hours and hours, they need, probably what you guys found, just to feel that connection and that safety and that security. But that doesn’t mean we need to be on the floor with them playing Legos eight hours a day. So that helped me alleviate some of this feeling of responsibility of being only with my kids. And then, to your point, in being the initiator in these relationships, I actually started setting reminders on my phone for the relationships that were important in my life to reach out and just text and ask how they were doing and just connect, which sounded a little robotic at first, but I found in the busyness of life, often, it would be days and days of just being a mom, and I would realize I hadn’t talked to anyone else besides my kids in days. And setting those little reminders while it seemed like adding it to my to-do list actually really helped me as well because I was getting adult connection too.
Dr. Waldinger: Exactly. Exactly. That’s such a good pointer to do that. It’s a little bit mechanical, but it works. And so to remind yourself and to then get yourself to do it is so key. And I think that most of us have to overcome some inner barriers to doing this kind of thing because many of us are a little shy about it. And so it’s useful to notice that when you do reach out 9 times out of 10 or more, people are gonna be so happy that you did, you’re gonna get positive feeling back. And that’s really important to notice because it’ll reward you for reaching out and being active.
Katie: That’s a great point. And at least the data I’ve seen, I feel like I’m glad we’re really delving into this for a bunch of the women listening who are moms because often kids are getting more varied social connection through school, through activities, and then through their parents. And through work, many women do get social connection. But especially for stay-at-home moms, it’s often hard. And so you really do have to prioritize it. And like you said, it may seem mechanical, but those little moments of establishing connection, and hopefully having in-person connection too really seem to make a huge difference, at least anecdotally for how I feel.
Dr. Waldinger: Yeah. You know, the other thing, to your earlier point, about not needing to spend every moment on the floor intently playing Legos, that kids also need us to model taking care of ourselves, and our own relationships, and having our own lives. And, of course, you don’t do that with a six-month-old, you know, when they need you, they need you. But, you know, with an 8-year-old, with a 10-year-old, they need to see that mom or dad also has their own friends and their own interests, and that that’s really good. And that you will want your child to do that as well as they grow up. So, we model the things that we want our children to learn to do in their own lives.
Katie: Yeah, so important. I’ve noticed that is, our kids do listen to some of what we say, but if you really want them to pay attention, they’re gonna pay attention to what we do. And whether it’s we want them to be interested in art, the best thing we can do is sit down at the table and draw and see if they wanna join us. Or if we love music, being involved with music is more likely to encourage them to want to do that than just telling them they ought to do music, things like that. So, I love that you brought that up.
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Another aspect from reading your work is the idea of empathetic accuracy. And I would love for you to explain what that is because I think this is something important for all of us and important to help cultivate in our kids. So, maybe explain to us what empathetic accuracy is and how we can get better at it.
Dr. Waldinger: Well, it’s a kind of psychological term, and it basically means understanding what somebody else is feeling. And so it’s reading somebody else’s emotion. So, if someone’s upset, really paying attention and knowing that, and maybe if it’s appropriate to name it, to say, you know, “You’re seeming upset, what’s going on?” And, you know, obviously, we try to do it with our children, with everybody we love, with our partners. And, you know, one of the things we found in our research is that it isn’t always possible to know what someone else is feeling. Like, if you start to frown, you might be feeling sad, you might be feeling angry, you might be feeling anxious, and I might not know from your facial expression what you’re feeling. But what we found is that I don’t have to get the answer right, just my trying to understand will help you feel like I care, right? So, if I say, “You know, what’s going on? You just frowned or I don’t know what you’re feeling but I’d really like to know”, that just that effort to understand what somebody else is feeling really matters to how connected we feel to each other.
Katie: And I think that’s an invaluable parenting tip as well. I feel like often when children have big emotions, what they need most is not our advice or telling them it’s gonna even be okay. They need to know we’re there and that we’re listening. And I feel like that question you just said, that’s the goal to just ask them, ask them and listen what are they feeling and what do they need rather than just assuming we know, which also then gives them the tools to learn how to start to vocalize what they’re feeling to teach them through experience, how to ask for help, which is something I feel like many adults are not great at in today’s world.
Dr. Waldinger: Right. And we can help our kids see that sometimes nothing needs to be fixed, but that difficult feelings come up and they pass. You know, I’m sad about this thing that happened and it then it passes, or nothing that has to be done, but just to understand, yeah, this is what feeling sad is like.
Katie: And that brings up another thing that I’ve heard you talk about which is…I think it’s called the WISER method, which is a tool for dealing with emotionally challenging situations. And I think this is a great segue into that. Can you explain what that is, and maybe how to do it, and why it’s helpful?
Dr. Waldinger: Well, now let me see if I can remember. WISER stands for…it’s an acronym, and it stands for the steps that we can take when we’re faced with a challenge that we don’t understand. So, let’s say something happens, like you see one of your kids doing something and another kid starts to cry and you don’t really know what just happened, an event that happens a lot in households, right? So, the first step…we break it down. The first step is to watch, to just notice, okay, what’s going on here? What can I observe about who’s where and what they’re doing? And to get as much information as you can, and then to interpret, to figure out, “Well, okay, what do I think is going on?” And maybe I can ask about what’s going on and try to understand, “Well, why did my child do this? Why is my other child crying?” To get as much information as we can. And then to think about, “Well, how could I respond as a parent?” So, I could get really angry, I could do all…
There are all kinds of things I could do. And so lay out the possible responses. And this often takes a few moment. And then we select a response. That’s the S. So, we watch, we interpret, then we select a response. Like, what response would be most skillful? Would it be to get really angry? Would it be to stay calm and give someone a time out, all kinds of possibilities? And then once we select our response to engage, to do what we said we were gonna do with our kids. And then the R is for reflect, to look back and say, “Well, how did that work? Was that a good way to handle this with my kids?” So, it’s basically a way to kind of slow down a challenging moment and say, “Okay, I’m gonna stop, I’m gonna look, I’m gonna pay attention, I’m gonna see what the possibilities are for what happened, how to respond. I’m gonna choose a response and then I’m gonna see how it works.” So, it’s a kind of way of being as skillful as we can about dealing with challenges. And challenges are coming at us all the time. You know, our partner says something that upsets us, you know, somebody does something on the street that seems offensive. There are all kinds of things that happen every day.
Katie: It’s helpful to have such a clear tool and an acronym to remember it by. And I think, to your earlier point about modeling as well, this is probably one of the best things we can do for our kids because certainly, we can talk to them about emotional regulation and we can talk to them about happiness and about going through challenges. But if they see us model this and they see us taking the deep breath instead of just reacting immediately and they see us asking the questions, they’re such sponges, they’re gonna learn that process at an earlier age. I’ve noticed this with my older kids, and even my youngest now. I’ve seen her when a sibling is upset, sometimes having them take a deep breath with her and then asking them like, “Well, what are you feeling?” And if they have a story about someone else did something, she’s like, “Well, is that true, or what else could be true?” And just some of the questions I ask, I start to see them do and I realize that modeling is so important. And while taking a deep breath and going through this method is certainly helpful for us, it also probably is an invaluable thing for our children to see us do.
Dr. Waldinger: It’s so great because otherwise, it’s so easy to jump to conclusions and act on impulse when we’re faced with a challenge. And so to model that, and to teach kids a skill, boy, what a help it is in life if you can do that.
Katie: And that leads to another question I was so excited to ask you, which is, from all of this data and all of these years of studying this same group of people, what would you say is the starting point if someone wants to take the first step toward more of that well-being and toward living a good life, even though knowing happiness might come and go, what are some of those either first step or first steps that you would point people toward?
Dr. Waldinger: I would say to take stock of your connections with other people. Think about where they are, think about what you might like more of or what you might like less of, or what you might want to change. And then see if you can lay out some small steps to make some changes so that you really invest in relationships. Because one of the things we know is that probably the best investment you can make in your own well-being besides taking care of your physical health is investing in your relationships.
Katie: Yeah. And the data seems very clear about that in this study. I know that it may not have been as much of something you looked at, but I am curious if there were any dietary or lifestyle patterns that did stand out that seemed to correlate with longevity or just health outcomes in general since you had such a wide amount of data from such a long period of time?
Dr. Waldinger: Well, the patterns that we saw were just the patterns that we all know about that, you know, our grandmothers could have told us, right? Which is eat well, exercise regularly, and take care of your health, get your regular checkups, get the healthcare, the preventive healthcare that’s available. And that that goes a long way to preserving our health.
Katie: Yeah. And a little bit that I got to delve into this, the data here, it seems like there were a lot of varied differences amongst that, but that the commonalities are ones that are often mentioned on this podcast. I feel like it’s easy to wanna get caught up in the cool new supplements or biohacks or things that are the shiny objects. But the consensus among almost every expert I’ve had on this podcast is that it comes down to, certainly, as you’ve pointed out, relationships and connection being a huge one as we talked about more important than smoking or obesity even and also stress and sleep. Both of those also seem to be influenced by the quality of our relationships. I feel like often, those are the hardest ones to dial in. And we have people debating over how much B vitamins we should take or how much meat we should or should not eat. If we have those foundational pieces in place of stress, and sleep, and relationships, it seems like those have positive ripples into all of these other perhaps less important smaller areas of health.
Dr. Waldinger: Absolutely. Absolutely. And this is particularly difficult for parents of young kids, I mean, because there’s so much stress in family life and parenting. And so finding little ways to relieve stress, little moments when you can have breathing room, not easy to do but it might be that there are ways to build them into your day when you have moments during nap time, or when the kids are at school, or right before you come home from work, taking a few moments for yourself. There are a variety of ways. Find the ways that are right for you. Nothing’s right for everybody, but you might be able to be on the alert for moments, little spaces in your day where you could do that kind of stress relieving in one way or another.
Katie: And that seems like this also ties in perhaps with maybe becoming more aware of our internal dialogue and how we are our own questions and statements about what’s happening to us. I know I’ve read quite a bit about, for instance, we all face challenges, but how we look at those challenges or look at failure often makes a big difference. It seems like in our mental health going forward, and I also have in the notes that you mentioned, close to half of our waking moments are spent thinking about something other than what we’re actually doing. So, it makes me curious, how much of a benefit is it to focus on being present and being in the moment? And also maybe reframing challenges as instead of, “Oh, this is bad, this is happening to me.” Maybe being aware of, this is a challenge that I am strong and capable of working through and learning from. But are there any mindset components that you saw really stand out from this?
Dr. Waldinger: Well, being present is really powerful. And you can be present just sitting still by yourself looking at a tree and just noticing everything you possibly can about that tree. I mean, you can just focus on something in the natural world. There are all kinds of ways to be present or listening to a favorite piece of music, or there are all kinds of small ways you can do this. But being very present will often let the chatter in your head calm down, then that can help enormously. The other thing is that if you are finding yourself unable to get out of your own head and your own worries, talk to somebody who’s a good listener and a good person to talk with. Don’t be caught up in worry all by yourself if you can help it. Because other people can really help ease some of the internal stress and anxious monologue that we can get into at times about our lives.
Katie: Yeah, and it seems like even the awareness of just understanding that we will encounter challenges, and I heard someone say one time, you know, it’s easy to think of the path of life as like the good things that are happening to us. And when something bad happens, to think, “Oh, I’m deviating from this path of life.” But if we can realize that the path of life encompasses all of these things and take those challenges in stride rather than resisting them as a bad thing that’s happening to us, it seems like the mindset there is almost as important as the actual experiences themselves because it’s how our body’s interpreting it.
Dr. Waldinger: Absolutely. Actually, one of my meditation teachers said something that I love. He talked about life as like an ocean with waves, you know, and that challenges are always coming our way. You know, waves are always coming through our lives of challenge. And he said, “You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn how to surf.” And that’s what you and I are talking about. We’re talking about different ways of surfing the waves of life’s challenges that are always coming at us.
Katie: And so it sounds like very much the key takeaway from this interview is that, to the degree that we nurture and really strengthen our relationships and our social bonds, we will see those positive ripples in the physical aspects of health, in the mental health aspects. And that seems like, was that kind of the key emerging commonality among this whole study?
Dr. Waldinger: Absolutely. Absolutely. And the most surprising one, initially.
Katie: An exciting one, I hope that maybe this will be an encouragement for many of the people listening to really prioritize those social connections and be the one who reaches out and who initiates that contact. And I think if we have a whole generation of moms who can model that for our kids, we might see a whole lot of changes in the span of one generation if we can all start to make that shift.
Dr. Waldinger: Yeah. You know, one of the reasons why I gave that TED Talk, one of the reasons why we wrote this book is for just that reason. We wanted to get these messages out to people in forms they could use. Because we’ve been publishing all of this in journals that are very technical that almost nobody reads. And so we thought it was really important to take these research findings and bring them out where people can find them.
Katie: Yeah, I’m one of the few that actually really enjoys reading studies. And I spend a decent amount of time in PubMed, but I’ve realized most people don’t necessarily enjoy that. And so I love that you have made this digestible and very practical for people who just want to know what to implement and how to improve their lives and their families’ lives. Speaking of books, a couple of questions I love to ask toward the end of interviews is if there is a book or a number of books that have had a profound impact on your life personally, and if so, what they are and why.
Dr. Waldinger: So, one book that someone gave me almost 40 years ago got me on the road to meditation. So, it’s a book by the meditation teacher, Jon Kabat-Zinn, and it’s called “Wherever You Go, There You Are.” And it’s just a gentle, clear introduction to why meditation is what it is, how it works, why you would do it, and some of the principles behind meditation, about getting to know our minds and our bodies through sitting still and really coming into focus on the present. And so that was a huge influence on me and set me on a path that I’m still on today.
Katie: I love it. That’s a new recommendation. So, I’ll link to that as well in the show notes for all of you listening at wellnessmama.fm along with, I will link to your TED Talk and your writing and your books so that people can find those and keep learning. But I love that we got to have this conversation to really highlight the importance of something that I think, especially in the last three years, has been overlooked or diminished and that it seems like the world needs so much right now when you have these decades and decades of data that show just how important it is as if we, you know, needed more reasons. Now, we have some really clear science to back up how important this is. I’m also curious if you have any parting advice for the listeners today that could be related to all the things we’ve talked about or entirely unrelated, something from your own life.
Dr. Waldinger: Well, I think as you listen to all these takeaways and all this advice, also remember that nobody has it all figured out ever. Nobody. I’ve never met one person, not even the most enlightened meditation teacher has life all figured out. Everybody has a life of challenges and ups and downs. And so, you know, we’re all just doing the best we can. And I just would like to convey to your audience, to your community that it’s okay to be striking out on your own path. There’s a quote I like that I’ll leave you with, which was from Joseph Campbell. He once said, “If the path before you is clear, you’re probably on somebody else’s path.” And it’s a way of saying each of us is leading our own unique life and each of us has a unique path. And so even though we’re sharing these things that I think are very valuable for most people, the form that it’s gonna take in your life is gonna be different from the form that it may take in my life. And that that’s okay, that’s to be expected. And so no worries if the way you’re figuring life out isn’t the same as the other people around you.
Katie: I love that quote. I’ll link to that or mention that in the show notes as well. And such a helpful reminder. Often I think we can get so hard on ourselves. This has been such a fun conversation for me, and I would guess also very enlightening for a lot of the people listening. Hopefully, it has encouraged all of us to reach out and to initiate more social connection to model that for our kids. And you gave us some really practical tools to remember ways to do this and methods, as well as I loved getting to delve into the data with you on why this is so important. Thank you so much for your work in this and for sharing your time today. This has been incredible. Thank you for being here.
Dr. Waldinger: I really enjoyed it. Thank you for letting me come and talk to you about these things that I care deeply about. I really appreciate it.
Katie: And thanks as always to all of you for listening and sharing your most valuable resources, your time, your energy, and your attention with us today. We’re both so grateful that you did. And I hope that you will join me again on the next episode of “The Wellness Mama” podcast.
If you’re enjoying these interviews, would you please take two minutes to leave a rating or review on iTunes for me? Doing this helps more people to find the podcast, which means even more moms and families could benefit from the information. I really appreciate your time, and thanks as always for listening.

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