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What’s the secret to happiness? What makes you proud? The answers may surprise you.

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Earning a lot of money or winning awards are certainly cause for celebration but what will make people genuinely happy is having strong relationships with family and friends. 

That’s what Robert Waldinger, co-author of “The Good Life: Lessons from the World’s Longest Scientific Study of Happiness,” found. Waldinger is director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, a study of happiness first started in 1938—84 years ago. He also presented a TED Talk on happiness with more than 43 million views. 

In his latest book, Waldinger dives into what makes people happy, and what doesn’t. He discusses what people get wrong about being happy, regrets older people had about their younger years and what to do to have a “good life.” There’s one thing to remember though: “nobody can be happy all the time,” he said. “That’s not something to aspire to. Nobody can be happy all the time.” 

Waldinger spoke with MarketWatch about happiness and how it differs for older and younger individuals. 

MarketWatch: Of all the lessons to learn, what would you say is the most important for people to know about happiness?

Robert Waldinger: After studying thousands of lives over many decades, relationships matter. Not just to happiness, but longevity. We take relationships for granted. The people who had the warmest relationships lived longer, stayed healthier and they were happier. 

The other one won’t be a surprise but is taking care of your health. It really, really matters. The results were dramatic. Not smoking, not abusing drugs or alcohol, exercise. 

MW: How does purpose differ for someone older versus younger? Or happiness in general. 

Waldinger: People prioritize different things as they get older. We get happier as we get older. Lots of people think it must be depressing, but they prioritize stopping and smelling the roses. As people get older they tend to prioritize and ask themselves, “Am I doing the things I care about?” It seems to be as we get older, life is short, but when you’re younger, you know everyone dies but you don’t feel the limitation as much as you feel it when you’re older. 

MW: What can young people learn from older people when it comes to balancing priorities? 

Waldinger: What matters to you versus what the world tells you you want. When asked in their 80s if they looked back on their life, what do you regret the most, or what are you proudest of, the most common regret was “I spent too much time working and not as much time with people I care about.” 

Women said they wished they didn’t spend as much time worrying what other people thought. The regrets might be good to know when you’re younger. 

The thing people were proudest of—they were proudest of something to do with relationships. It wasn’t that they made a lot of money. We had people who did all those things but everyone said it was “I was a good parent,” “good friend,” “good colleague at work.” 

MW: What are good ways to foster relationships when they’re not always a priority? 

Waldinger: Perfectly good friendships and family relationships whither away and die if you neglect them. It is an ongoing practice. Inviting someone for coffee or making sure to actively reach out to people you want to keep in your life and do it regularly. That’s one thing people can do. Another thing is to put themselves in situations where they’re doing something they care about and with the same people over and over again. You can volunteer at a food bank, you can play basketball, you can join a gardening club with people who share the same interests as you. Strike up new relationships. 

MW: Is there anything people should not do to bolster happiness? 

Waldinger: Get rid of feuds, like grudges. Grudges take a toll on the people who hold them. Find ways to work them out. Step away from them. It really drags people down. I think people shouldn’t avoid problems. All relationships end up having disagreements, but we find people with the strongest relationships talk about [problems] rather than pretend they don’t exist. 


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