The Factor Biggest in People’s Happiness Is Our Connections With Others

Marc Schulz ’84 is associate director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, which is the longest scientific study of the psychological factors that promote happiness. The study has followed individuals from more than 700 families from their adolescence to the end of their lives and continues to follow more than 1,300 children of the original participants. His new book, The Good Life, which he wrote with study director Robert Waldinger, shares lessons from this 85-year investigation. The book quickly became a New York Times bestseller, perhaps because it uses science to address an issue of universal importance, demystifying the idea of “a good life” and providing concrete steps toward improving our overall well-being. Schulz teaches at Bryn Mawr College, where he is the Sue Kardas Ph.D. 1971 Chair in Psychology. We talked in February about, among other topics, his formative experiences at Amherst, the importance of doing things for people other than ourselves and the many ways our relationships impact our physical health.

Marc Schultz reclines on a wooden bench outside.

You write that your formal study of “the good life” began in college. What specifically about your time at Amherst helped set the stage for inquiries in this book?

There were two ways I was trying to explore this idea in college: socially and academically. My study of the good life really started with my friends as we tried to figure out our paths forward in life. I was also politically active: I helped to coordinate the anti-apartheid and 
divestment efforts that were going on at the College. With the conflicts in Central America as well, I felt a desire to help people in a broad way—to figure out better social or political policies. But as I’ve grown older, I’ve grown more interested in the interiors: in trying to understand people’s lives and how they can create positive experiences for themselves.

Academically, I remember getting excited reading and discussing centuries- or millennia-old texts about the good life and examining the connection between social structures and people’s well-being. While I came to Amherst as a science guy, I decided to become a 
sociology major. A big emphasis in our book was trying to integrate ancient wisdoms, both religious and philosophical, with science. That approach really stemmed from my classes. I had a very broad education at Amherst, and I’m forever grateful. I took a lot of science courses; I took a lot of social-science classes. I did coursework in music and art and religion, and I feel like it would’ve been very hard to write this book if I hadn’t had those experiences.

The Harvard Study of Adult Development sets out to answer a big question: What makes for a happy, meaningful and fulfilled human existence? You’ve been involved in this study for about 20 years. Have there been moments during that time when you noticed yourself actively making certain life choices because of your perspective on the research?

Yeah, you know, this study is an extraordinary opportunity to get inside the heads of other people and try to learn what their experiences are like. We have 85 years of data on people and their families, and it’s allowed me to think back on those broad questions that date back to Amherst. The study shows that it is connections with others that have the biggest impact on people’s happiness. Our connections with others help us emotionally and physically thrive.

I’ve come to walk the walk more than I used to. I lean into connections more. I talk to strangers more than I ever did, and my children laugh at me sometimes, 
because they think I am being a bit silly. But I do it, and I’ve come to enjoy it more, too. “Become more fearless,” is what I would say. I’m less worried about what people are going to think. I’m leaning into the existing connections I have, and reaching out more to new people I meet.

Marc Schultz with friends at a meeting table.

In the chapter on social fitness, you share some shocking calculations about how many hours of our lives we spend with loved ones compared to how many hours we spend engaging with media and smartphones. Yet we know, as the book says, that “the frequency and the quality of our contact with other people are two major predictors of happiness.” What do you think are the most common reasons that so many people get caught up in patterns that prolong their social isolation?

Loneliness is rampant. Surveys show about 20 percent to 50 percent of the U.S. population reporting loneliness on a given day. Not only does ancient wisdom tell us that leaning into our communities and tending to our relationships is important, but we now know that loneliness is a major risk factor for health problems, on the order of smoking and obesity. It’s a major public health problem. I think there are three main reasons for why this problem is occurring.

The first is that we’re intensively bombarded by messages that steer us in other directions. These messages tell us that fame and achievement are the most important things in life and that monetary success will bring us happiness. Those messages have become more 
effective at reaching us, partly because we are connected to our phones most waking hours.

The second reason, which we discuss in the book, is affective forecasting. Affective forecasting means predicting what’s going to be good for us, what will make us happy. We know from research that we’re not completely rational when it comes to making decisions, particularly quick ones. Many of us tend to overestimate negative consequences, because we’re worried about negative outcomes. While that makes evolutionary sense, when it comes to our social lives, it means we tend to worry too much that people will not like us, will reject us or won’t be interested in us. On top of this, many people have learned from past experiences that they need to be cautious in relationships.

The third reason is that relationships are messy and complicated. They’re hard to control—we know this from experience. But messiness comes along with all the other great aspects of relationships, too.

I was surprised to learn of Janice Kiecolt-Glaser’s study from the ’90s. It found that stress can affect the speed at which physical wounds heal. Would you say the Harvard study is also helping to demonstrate the ways our mental wellness impacts our physical wellness?

It didn’t start that way. When the Harvard study began in the 1930s, people had no idea that this kind of impact was even possible. When we began to uncover this in our own data 20 years ago, we were cautious about what it meant, worried that maybe it was some kind of fluke. But over time, countless studies emerged to show how relationships affect our health—things like inflammatory patterns in our bodies, and that these patterns are really important, particularly as we age, for physical illness. Another study found that if you hold the hand of someone when you’re feeling pain, the areas of your brain that detect or sense pain are less active.

In our own research, the first hint we got was an early finding: Participants’ relationship health in their 50s predicted their quality of aging in their 80s. The Harvard Study, along with other data sets, shows that the quality of your marriage affects how long you’re going to live. So we’re part of a wave in science that’s uncovering this. In The Good Life, we were interested in going beyond our study and incorporating hundreds of other studies that suggest similar patterns. And that pattern is clear: Our relationships affect our physical health.

A man standing in an empty office overlooking the city

This book makes a strong case for the relationships between individuals. Did the data suggest anything about relationships at the community level?

Like families, communities are also important. One of the phenomena that have likely contributed to rampant loneliness since long before social media is the fact that we’ve become highly mobile in the United States. For many people, particularly successful young people, jobs are the primary focus, which causes them to leave the places they grew up. That means they’re distant from their families and old friends.

I’ve been at Bryn Mawr now for 26 years, and before that, I was teaching in Boston. Academic communities certainly have their challenges, but they’re also a place where people have a shared connection in terms of wanting to learn and to grow. I have blossomed because of these communities—both as a student at Amherst and as a teacher elsewhere. My kids also grew up in these communities—they happened to go to Amherst, too—and I’ve seen first-hand how these broader ties in an embedded community can be really important.

A book titled The Good Life

His new book, from Simon & Schuster, shares lessons from a study that has lasted 85 years.

You dig into this idea in the book chapter on generativity. What is generativity, why is it important and how can people respond to it?

Generativity is our impulse to do things for people other than ourselves. As we age, it becomes more important to us. Generativity has to do partly with our interest in leaving a legacy, but it’s also about how we can help people in ways that aren’t necessarily going to help 
ourselves. This can include mentoring, teaching, volunteering, spending time with grandchildren—these are all ways of being generative, taking the knowledge that we’ve accumulated and sharing it with others.

As we go through an entire lifespan, our needs and priorities change. We need meaning in our lives at every age. What livelihood is going to give me meaning? What will my legacy be when I leave this Earth? How will people remember me? Have I had a meaningful impact on others? So, while generativity becomes particularly important later in life, meaning and purpose are critically important throughout. That’s what gets us up in the morning, gets us to that job even when we’re tired.

What are some steps people can take to live the “good life”?

The most important thing you can do is lean into your connections with others. Without intention and effort, our connections with people tend to wither over time. Like physical fitness, it is critical to work on our social fitness. We can begin by letting folks who are important to us know that. It can start with a simple text: “I am thinking about you” or “I had an experience today that reminded me of you.”

We also want to prioritize our time and attention for our key connections. If we passively allot our time and attention, we often end up distracted by social media and other demands in our life. So, call a friend or a relative and make a date to get together. Connect with someone you have not spoken to lately. When you are with that person, be present and curious—give them the gift of your attention. And, if you are at a point in life when you are looking for new connections, think about engaging in an activity that interests you and will put you alongside others in a common pursuit. This could be a recreational activity like tennis or pickleball, or a volunteer activity in your community.

Carla Diaz ’13 received her M.F.A. in fiction from Vanderbilt University. Her work has appeared in EPOCH, The Kenyon Review and Joyland Magazine and has been nominated for Best American Short Stories. She lives in Atlanta and is working on a novel.

Photographs by Mark Ostow