Leadership and Happiness

Alex Smith, Editor-in-Chief

Robert Waldinger joins HBS Professor Arthur Brooks in his Leadership and Happiness class to share insights from the longest study on adult life ever performed. Alex Smith (MBA ‘23) reports.

I hesitated to write this article because, as an RC, I selfishly wanted to keep the secret of Arthur Brooks’ Leadership and Happiness class under wraps to improve my chances of obtaining a seat. It appears I am too late. This class is already one of the most sought after, competitive electives of the EC year. Why is that? I think it is because the class diverges from the traditional, more obvious MBA topics, instead exploring a subject that few leaders discuss and even fewer understand—happiness. Throughout the seven-week course, students explore the fundamental challenge of managing happiness. Do you have good habits? Are you currently happy? Can you manage yourself? What is the functional utility of the money you make, and how much can money be an incentive tool? What are real friends, and what are deal friends?

This class was developed specifically for HBS students. This semester, students were gifted the opportunity to host Robert Waldinger as a guest speaker, and I was lucky enough to sit in on the class. Waldinger is a legendary figure at Harvard. He is also the current Director of the Grant Study, a working to answer what really matters in living a fulfilled life.

As you can imagine, the class was fascinating. Waldinger began the discussion by acknowledging that the world seems to be falling apart right now. His aim was to discuss ways that we can try to keep ourselves together. He then shared conclusions from the annual UN World Happiness Report which asks people what they think they need to have a good life.

The answer to the question was surprisingly uniform around the world. We all need the following:

  •         Basic level of economic well-being—an annual salary beyond $75k showed little increase in happiness
  •         Social support
  •         Healthy life expectancy
  •         Freedom to make big life choices
  •         Generosity
  •         Trust (absence of corruption)

Furthermore, over the last 100 years, the assumption was that as societies got richer, they would get happier. Waldinger shared multiple studies that debunked this. Yet, in a 2017 survey of millennials, 74% said their major life goal was to get rich. Over 50% wanted to become famous. Many prioritized achieving a great deal in their careers.

Waldinger posed the question to the class, “What is responsible for the disconnect between the millennial goals and what people have said they need for a good life?”

He went on to explain. Many of our priorities are defined for us, not by us. Social media, television, billboards, and our external environment often give off subtle signals telling us what we need to have a good life. He made an interesting observation—if you were an alien learning about human life through social media accounts, you would think humans spend all their time at glamorous parties, on the beach, eating beautiful plates of food, or just being perfect. We know that is not the case, but these subtleties do make us feel like we are missing out on this life.  Per Waldinger, “We are always comparing our insides to other peoples’ outsides.”

So how do we learn about human life? The Harvard Study of Adult Development has accomplished this by following the same people over decades, becoming the longest study of adult life that has ever been performed. There were two subject groups. The first included 268 Harvard college sophomores who were chosen by the deans as “outstanding young specimens” in the 1930s. This included President John F. Kennedy. The other group consisted of 456 inner city teenagers, who lived in the poorest neighborhoods in Boston in some of the most dysfunctional families. It should be noted, this initial subject pool consisted of all white men and was later expanded to their wives and children.

The study followed the men through adulthood, aging, retirement, and some through death, detailing the following:

  •         Mental health
  •         Physical health
  •         War experiences
  •         Professional successes and failures
  •         Relationships
  •         Retirement
  •         Aging

Initially, it was limited to medical exams. As technology improved, so did the data compiled. Eventually, they were videoing, drawing blood, giving MRI’s and more. This provided insight beyond  their physical health.

Of the learnings, one of the most fascinating was that human relational functioning is much stronger than initially imagined. Loneliness is linked not only to earlier physical decline, but also to cognitive decline. Loneliness in this context is subjective, therefore it is not about the number of people you see, but how connected you feel to those people. Many of us have experienced this—feeling lonely in a crowd, or even in a relationship. This feeling can have profound impacts on health. In fact, the study determined loneliness to be as powerful of an indicator as cigarette smoking. In other words, feeling perpetually lonely can be as unhealthy as smoking 15 cigarettes a day or being obese.

Intimacy keeps us alive. The study found this to be even more true for men than women. Married men live seven to seventeen years longer than their unmarried counterparts, whereas married women live only five to twelve years longer. The leading explanation for this discrepancy points to the idea that women on average are more socially connected, so there may be a ceiling effect.

If relationships matter so much, it is important that we understand what makes up a good one and what to avoid. Firstly, Waldinger explained that relationships are not static. They do not have to be smooth. Studies have shown that frequency and severity of arguments does not indicate a relationship’s stability. Instead, the important element is the “bedrock of affection.” Without a bedrock of affection, a bad marriage is worse than no marriage at all. A bad marriage is one in which the individuals are constantly agitated, where the partners continuously activate the fight or flight responses of their partners.

To understand relationships outside the context of marriage, the study asked the participants to list out all the people they felt comfortable calling in the middle of the night when they were sick and scared. These are the quality relationships that keep us from being lonely. Waldinger emphasized though that superficial relationships matter too. The short conversation at a grocery store with the check-out clerk can give you a small boost throughout the day, and these moments are directly linked to happiness and well-being. In fact, there is a strong correlation between the number of people an individual sees in a week and how long that individual will live and stay healthy. 

A fact that may make some of my classmates feel better about their investments in HBS Treks is the finding that “the best things in life aren’t things.” We are happier for longer when we spend our discretionary income on experiences rather than material objects. Why is this? Waldinger shared that material things beg for comparison—the more we compare ourselves to other people, the less happy we are. Furthermore, experiences are typically social events where we strengthen existing relationships or make new ones.

Despite the research showing the importance of relationships, there has been a dramatic drop off in our investment in social capital since the invention of the television. People join less community groups and have fewer dinner parties.  The invention of the iPhone further exacerbated the issue. Waldinger described this as a state of giving each other “continuous partial attention” where people are half listening all of the time.

How can we combat this? Waldinger gave some tips. Eat together regularly with people that you are connected to, not necessarily just family. Volunteer in the community. Become part of organizations. Put your phone down and give your full attention. Focus on connections.

 These findings can even be applied in the workplace. Nearly half of workers have no close friends at work. There is clear linkage between loneliness at work and less discretionary effort, poorer performance, and higher employee turnover. Thus, managers should prioritize strengthening social connections. Encourage giving and receiving help, create opportunities to learn about each other’s personal lives, and recognize that these efforts are not distractions but instead serve as sources of energy.

As the conversation wrapped up, he summarized the key takeaways of the study. “Human connection is a major source of happiness and physical health. Technology has the power to isolate or connect us to each other. Lives at home and at work need to be structured to combat isolation.” 

Next for Waldinger and the study is to learn more about the impact of social media and Covid-19 on happiness. If this topic interests you, you can learn more about the study here: https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2017/04/over-nearly-80-years-harvard-study-has-been-showing-how-to-live-a-healthy-and-happy-life/ . If you are a rising RC, you can also consider taking Arthur Brooks’ class, Leadership and Happiness. Readers can check out his most recent book, From Strength to Strength: Finding Success, Happiness, and Deep Purpose in the Second Half of Life.

Arthur C. Brooks is a contributing writer at The Atlantic, the William Henry Bloomberg professor of the practice of public leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School, and a professor of management practice at the Harvard Business School. He is the creator of the HarvardX Course Managing Happiness and the host of the podcast series How to Build a Happy Life.

Dr. Robert Waldinger is Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, Director of the Center for Psychodynamic Therapy and Research at Massachusetts General Hospital, and Director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development. He is a practicing psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, he teaches Harvard medical students and psychiatry residents, and he is on the faculty of the Boston Psychoanalytic Institute. He is also a Zen priest.

Alex Smith (MBA ’23) is a dog mom from Texas. She previously worked for Chevron Technology Ventures helping startups to scale. Skiing with friends, listening to podcasts on long walks, and singing Billy Joel on road trips are some of her favorite pastimes.