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What's the #1 thing to change to be happier? A top happiness researcher weighs in

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

If you could change one thing about your life in order to become a happier person, what do you think would make the biggest difference - money, job, relationships, health, something else? Well, Dr. Robert Waldinger is director of the world's longest-running scientific study of happiness. And his research offers a real answer to this question backed up by data. He's co-author of a new book called "The Good Life." Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

ROBERT WALDINGER: Thanks. It's great to be here.

SHAPIRO: So this research, the Harvard Study of Adult Development, has been going on since 1938. And needless to say, you've not been the director of the study that entire time.

WALDINGER: That's right.

SHAPIRO: Before we answer the question, what change will most improve a person's happiness, tell us about the research that gives you confidence in answering this question. What's the study actually doing?

WALDINGER: Well, the study started out as a study of what makes people thrive. And it was very unusual to do that. We've spent so much time studying what goes wrong in life. And so this was a study of how people take good paths as they go through life.

SHAPIRO: And it followed people for literally generations. You're now tracking the grandchildren or great-great - I mean, what - how long is it?

WALDINGER: Well, we're seriously into the children, but we talked with their grandparents, and we talked, of course, with their parents and now the children, most of whom are baby boomers.

SHAPIRO: So you're looking at what makes people thrive. When we use the word happiness, what are we actually talking about? - because there's a difference between, like, the spike of a sugar rush high and sort of the contentment of sitting on a rocking chair on a porch in your old age.

WALDINGER: Exactly. And it's both. You know, we do like that sugar rush high, that I'm having fun right now at this party kind of high. And then there's the happiness that comes from feeling like I'm having a good life, a decent life, a meaningful life. And we all want some of both, but some of us really prioritize one kind over the other kind.

SHAPIRO: Well, life is obviously very complicated, and your research goes into great detail across a wide range of variables. And given all of that, I was really surprised at how uncomplicated the answer to this central question is. So let's reveal. If people could change one thing in their lives to be happier, what should they choose, according to the data?

WALDINGER: They should invest in their relationships with other people. We found that the strongest predictors of who not just stayed happy but who was healthy as they went through life - the strongest predictors were the warmth and the quality of their relationships with other people.

SHAPIRO: Does it matter whether we're talking about friends, spouses, coworkers, other kinds of relationships?

WALDINGER: It doesn't matter. We get benefits from all of those kinds of relationships, including the person who makes our coffee for us in the morning, including the person who delivers our mail. We get little hits of well-being in all these different kinds of relationships.

SHAPIRO: Can you explain why?

WALDINGER: What we think is that relationships are stress regulators, that chronic stress, as we know, is a big problem, that it breaks down our coronary arteries and it breaks down our joints. It has numerous health hazards. And what we find is that good relationships are stress relievers. You know, if you think about it, if I have something upsetting happen during the day and I'm ruminating about it, my body revs up. And if I have somebody who's a good listener that I can go home to or call on the phone, I can literally feel my body come down, go back to baseline if I can talk to somebody about it. And we think that that's how relationships relieve stress and keep us healthy.

SHAPIRO: Are introverts just out of luck? Like, does it matter quantity versus quality of friendships? Is one or two really close friendships as valuable as dozens of friendships that might not be quite as deep?

WALDINGER: It all depends on what you need. So we're all somewhere on a spectrum from being shy to being extroverted, and neither is a problem. Being really shy is not a problem. Those people just need fewer other people in their lives than those party animals. And so it's really up to each of us to kind of check in with ourselves and see what works for me. What's energizing but not exhausting or frightening? You know, what number of people? What kinds of contacts?

SHAPIRO: One of the things that surprised me about the book, one of the takeaways that I was left with, was that as we think about what we prioritize in our lives, we should actually consciously make space for our connections with others in a way that is not just, like, a break or a treat or a reward but in the same way that we might prioritize - I don't know - exercise or whatever else we might think will help us live longer, healthier lives. Actually, spending time with our friends is a good thing to do, not just something that we can give ourselves as a reward for all of the other virtuous things that we might have carved out space for.

WALDINGER: Exactly. And we often imagine that, well, our good friends are going to stay our friends forever, and no need to do anything to keep those relationships up. But many good relationships will just wither away from neglect. So we talk about what we call social fitness in the book, which is really tending to our relationships just like we take care of our physical health, just like we take care of physical fitness.

SHAPIRO: Is there a point in life when it becomes too late to change course? Like, how fixed are our paths?

WALDINGER: You know, we've tracked these lives for eight decades. And the wonderful thing about following these life stories is we learn it's never too late. There were people who thought they were never going to have good relationships and then found a whole collection of good close friends in their 60s or 70s. There were people who found romance for the first time in their 80s. And so the message that we get from studying these thousands of lives is that it is never too late.

SHAPIRO: Right now Americans generally report feeling lonelier and more isolated than people in their parents' or grandparents' generations. So give us an example or two of concrete specific things that anybody could do tomorrow to help reroute their lives down the path that your research shows will lead to greater happiness, health and longevity.

WALDINGER: Well, one thing would be to, right now, think of somebody you miss or would like to see more of, and just send them a text. Send them an email. Call them on the phone. But the other thing you can do if you feel like you are not very connected with others is to think about the things you love to do or the things you care about. And find ways to do those things alongside other people because what we know is that when we do that, when we're engaged in activities that we care about with other people who care about the same things, we start out with something in common, and from there, it's very natural to strike up conversations and, with some of those people, make deeper relationships.

SHAPIRO: Dr. Robert Waldinger is a psychiatry professor at Harvard Medical School. And with Mark Schultz, he's author of "The Good Life: Lessons From The World's Longest Scientific Study Of Happiness." Thanks a lot.

WALDINGER: Thank you. This was a pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHARRELL WILLIAMS SONG, "ANGEL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
Megan Lim
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.